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Awakening the force: former journalist aims to unleash China’s sci-fi potential

Chinese sci-fi has made international headlines, with Liu Cixin becoming the first Asian to win the Hugo award for best science fiction or fantasy novel last year, and compatriot Hao Jingfang taking the award for best novella this year. It’s a hugely popular genre in China, boasting tens of millions of readers, but the country’s output in the genre is just fraction of that in the United States, according to Xinhua.

JI SHAOTING, or Xiao Ji as Chinese sci-fi fans know her, founded the Future Affairs Administration, a start-up in Beijing that wants to “administer the future” by being an incubator for sci-fi talent and integrating resources through hosting seminars and connecting writers with scientists.

A former Xinhua reporter, Ji tells JANE LI why the venture excites her.

Why a sci-fi start-up and where did the name come from?

I started reading science fiction when I was nine. It opened a gate to a new world for me and became a lifelong friend. After being a reporter for 10 years, I felt a strong impulse to immerse myself entirely in sci-fi, so I quit my job. I loved being a reporter and this is the only thing that could drag me away from journalism.

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I watched the movie District 9, a science fiction thriller, several years ago. It’s about the life of an employee of the United Nation’s Department of Alien Affairs who has to deal with basic bureaucratic stuff through the day. I remember thinking when watching the movie, “Why do people care so much about the present but pay so little attention to the future?”, and I got the idea of initiating a bureau in charge of future affairs. The start-up “Future Affairs Administration” comprises some of my sci-fi fan friends who have other full-time jobs, such as an associate researcher at the China Science and Technology Museum.

Where does your funding come from?

We are in the A-round stage of financing and expect it to close this autumn. The valuation of the company after the financing will be around 100 million yuan (HK$115 million).

What is the major business of the Future Affairs Bureau?

We are now focusing on cultivation, to inject new vigour into China’s sci-fi industry, as well as to upgrade how it’s made. This means the core of the company is not only the writers, but a rethink of the entire industry. Sci-fi, as a cultural concept as well as a fiction genre, has a huge space in which to develop. We will try to develop various products as well as the business operations to support them. In addition to the publishing business, we also provide services such as film consultation, brand marketing and community building.

Have you signed any writers yet?

We have signed contracts with more than 40 authors so far. Seven of those are our main focus and the writers we want to coach the most. Writing is a highly personal thing. Authors have their own comfort zones in terms of topics as well as approaches. The range for selecting sci-fi authors is quite broad for us and anyone who has a single shining point in their stories could be considered. We will hold writing workshops as well as camps for improving writing skills.

What are the differences between Chinese sci-fi authors and writers from other countries?

The biggest advantage of Chinese sci-fi authors is to have been born in China. Cultural industries rely highly on the status of the society they are in. There are three major contexts we have to consider when discussing this topic:

One, China cannot refer to any other country, especially the US, in terms of the development of its sci-fi industry. The reform and opening-up policy of the 1980s introduced some intellectual achievements from Western countries over the previous half-century into China, breaking the regular development cycle of many industries in the nation, including the sci-fi industry. Thus China’s sci-fi industry might not develop as gradually as elsewhere.

Next, although the history of Chinese sci-fi can be traced back to the Qing dynasty [1644-1911], the modern sci-fi industry of China has little connection with the past. Many of the major contributors in this industry emerged in the 1990s.

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Lastly, while the momentum of China’s sci-fi industry will continue, the pace of China’s technology and science development will be even quicker. China has put lots of resources into developing basic research as well as frontier research in science since the start of the 21st century, especially in the fields of outer space and high-energy. Frequent breakthroughs in quantum computing, superconductivity and nuclear fusion have not only provided topics for sci-fi authors but also boosted the confidence of the mass audience in the future.

The Western sci-fi industry, however, has become more entertaining, emotional and speculative during the same period. People’s expectations for the future have weakened and there is not so much demand for seeking possibilities brought by advanced technologies.

General abilities are what we lack in this industry but that can be blamed more on the immaturity of the industry itself.

What do you think of Chinese sci-fi writers getting international recognition in recent years?

Winning awards is something that should be celebrated, but we have to realise that winning awards is not everything. But there is one thing we can be sure of: Chinese sci-fi can no longer be overlooked. We always had hope for the Chinese sci-fi industry, but no one anticipated that China could win two Hugo Awards in such a short time.

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I can reasonably predict that Chinese sci-fi will become an essential part of the international sci-fi community and we will hold a grand sci-fi convention and publish popular sci-fi novels and movies, which do not exist at the moment, in the future.

What is the market potential for the Chinese sci-fi industry?

The sci-fi film market in China is worth tens of billions of yuan while the publishing side will be much smaller. What we are trying to convey to the world are the values and methodologies in Chinese sci-fi that can be shared among all human beings. It’s not a competition between countries or the export of Chinese values. It’s intelligence versus stupidity, awareness versus speculation and foresight versus myopia. We would associate with anyone who can help us to achieve this goal, no matter whether they are sci-fi lovers or government officials.

What are the prospects for Chinese sci-fi going global?

Chinese sci-fi will definitely go global with the increasing influence of the country, which is inevitable. The question is, should we take the lead in developing the global sci-fi scene instead of the US and carve out a way to revitalise it? Or should we grab the sci-fi market by using less costly and more blatant approaches? For some short-sighted funders these might not seem so different, but for us, they are two different values.