Kids experience the science world. Photo: CFP
By Sunday afternoon in Beijing, Yao Haijun, editor in chief of Science Fiction World (SFW) magazine, said he hadn't slept well for three days. The capital had hosted two of China's most prestigious sci-fi literature award ceremonies: the Galaxy Awards on Thursday and the Nebula Awards (China) on Sunday.
Tens of the country's prominent sci-fi writers plus experts from around the world had joined with crowds of sci-fi fans at a series of events including seminars, exhibitions, autograph sessions and carnival activities. Attendees included Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, two of the nation's Hugo Award winners; Cat Rambo, president of Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America; Crystal M. Huff, who co-chairs the 2017 World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki; Vladimir Plester, European Space Agency physicist and engineer; and Japanese sci-fi writer Taiyo Fujii.
Yao told the Global Times that this year he was most impressed and encouraged by the presence of Li Yuanchao, China's vice president, who attended the China Science Fiction Summit on Thursday morning with 20 sci-fi authors from different countries and demonstrated the government's attention on developing the industries centered on sci-fi in the long run.
It was an overwhelming joy for Yao. Born in 1966, he has been a witness of the ups and downs of Chinese sci-fi industry, which include a nightmare in 1983 when sci-fi literature was considered by the government as polluting people's minds in the country and a large number of magazines had to remove sci-fi content from their pages.
The Science Fiction World Magazine Photo: Sun Shuangjie/GT
Fortunately, things have changed a lot in China over the past 30 years. Now, 1 million out of the 80 million Chinese consumers of sci-fi products are core fans, Yao said, citing data collected from related magazine subscriptions, cinema box-office numbers and the number of major sci-fi video game players.
But amid this growth, one single entity stands out without peers or rivals: SFW as China's lone sci-fi magazine. Each month, SFW, based in Sichuan Province, releases three issues, with a total circulation of 200,000 copies: SFW itself, focusing on Chinese sci-fi works; SFW Translations, featuring translated foreign works; and SFW Youth, aimed at primary school students. Meanwhile, the group also runs a popular fortnightly science magazine aimed at students, each month released under the titles Little Newton and Primary Scientist, with a circulation of 50,000. The main magazine is the one that launched the career of Liu Cixin, by publishing his best-seller The Three-Body Problem.
The previous incarnation of SFW was Science Literature, founded in 1979. It was one of many popular science magazines in the country, thanks to the starting of Reforming and Opening-up. However, after the setback in 1983, SFW became one of the few sci-fi magazines in the 1990s, alongside SF-King in Shanxi Province, which ran from 1994 to 2014.
In 2000, the SFW group launched a plan to develop magazines targeting different readers' demographics and tastes, and once ran a fantasy magazine from 2003 to 2013.
For most Chinese sci-fi readers, SFW has been an influential mentor in this field. In Baidu Tieba, more than 50,000 people follow SFW's account. Each day, SFW editors receive dozens of articles from contributing writers across the nation. And after three sessions of appraisal and editing, the selected stories are run in the magazine, which is often shared by three to five readers, Yao said. Over the past three decades, SFW has received more than 100,000 articles and published 1,200 of them, and 253 have won Galaxy Awards, which was initiated by the magazine in 1986.
Baoshu is one of the sci-fi fans nourished by SFW, and in 2011, with the help of Yao, Baoshu published his debut sci-fi book, Three Body X, a sequel to Liu's The Three-Body Problem.
One million out of the 80 million Chinese consumers of sci-fi products are core fans. Photo: IC
John Wood Campbell of China
"The roles of SFW and Yao are very significant in my life," Baoshu told the Global Times. "Without them, I would probably still be only a sci-fi fan, and I wouldn't have started writing sci-fi novels."
Before releasing Three Body X, Baoshu, a PhD-holder in philosophy, used to post stories on college online forum. In 2012, Baoshu signed with Zui Book in Shanghai and has become one of the few full-time sci-fi writers in China. There are about 200 sci-fi writers in the country, and fewer than 50 of them keep writing, and popular writers are only about 10, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Yao also helped launch Liu Cixin to widespread popularity. SFW originally published The Three-Body Problem in installments, which Yao said he planned to stoke interest before he published it as a book.
That's why Yao has been called "China's John Wood Campbell." In the 20th century, American sci-fi writer Campbell discovered a pool of sci-fi writers as editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. Through SFW, Yao also discovered people who compose the core team of Chinese sci-fi writers, such as Liu, Baoshu, Wang Jinkang, Han Song, He Xi, Xia Jia, and Chen Qiufan.
It was in 2000 that Yao began venturing into book publishing for SFW writers. He told the Global Times that this idea was propelled by two incentives. One was that he received drafts from Wang Jinkang and Liu Cixin, which were "very exciting" to read. And the other was that based on his weekly observation of local bookstores he found a shortage of contemporary Chinese sci-fi works.
"I found that Chinese parents are not unwilling to buy sci-fi books for their child, but in terms of choices at that time, they could choose only foreign writers of late 19th century and early 20th century. That's a pity, because sci-fi is about imagination of futures. Reading old books is not very helpful to stimulate readers' imaginative and creative capacity," Yao said.
Starting from 2002, Yao worked with SFW magazine editors to publish sci-fi books, and has created three book series that laid the cornerstone for contemporary Chinese sci-fi literature. Three years ago, SFW group hired three full-time editors for books, and last year, the sale of books outnumbered that of SFW magazines, Yao said.
In the eyes of Yao, a wholesome sci-fi industry chain includes products from magazines to books and then to film and TV. And SFW has been instrumental in transforming China's sci-fi industry from magazine-driven to book-driven over the past 10 years. But now the country is already facing challenges to develop the genre overall.
Pan Haitian is a well-known sci-fi and fantasy author in China and is the chairman of Shanghai-based Zhucan Culture Co. Ltd., which deals with sci-fi and fantasy film and TV productions. SFW was the only sci-fi magazine he could read in the 1990s, and in 1994 he started to publish works on it, and has since then become a five-time winner of Galaxy Awards.
"A strong sense of nostalgia hits me every time I think about SFW in the 1990s. It was the center of the galaxy that drew together all Chinese sci-fi writers. Every one of us could hear the thunder from the future," Pan wrote in an e-mail to Global Times.
In 2002, Pan, together with six other fantasy writers, created a fantasy series featuring nine states in an ancient Asian world and even set up a company to develop the series in not only magazine but also film and game. At that time, SFW was also trying a new magazine about fantasy, but considering that SFW as a state-owned body could barely satisfy the company in terms of profit allocation, Pan chose to say goodbye to SFW and launched his own combination book and magazine, or a so-called mook in China, titled Odyssey of China Fantasy.
But both SFW's and Pan's trials failed. With no ISBN, Pan had to seek cooperation with different publishing houses, which often caused delays. Meantime, censorship of the content also baffled him. Once he had to change a cover several times until a pentagram was replaced by a gear wheel to satisfy the publisher.
"From the perspective of investors, to do a magazine now is a thing that can barely make ends meet. But I still want to try once more," Pan wrote. "Because a magazine has unparalleled advantage to gather the core sci-fi writers, to discover and cultivate new talents, and even to create a new trend for the whole industry."
Cheng Quan, director of a series of speculative novels published by Baihua Literature and Art Publishing House in Tianjin, echoed Pan. This January, he initiated a new mook, Science Fiction Cube (SFC), which offers monthly in-depth stories focused on one sci-fi topic for each edition. He told the Global Times that compared with SFW, which caters for young readers, especially students, SFC targets at older readers.
"In 1999 circulation of SFW reached its historical high with 400,000 copies, so there should be about 2 million readers nationwide at that time," said Cheng, who was also a fan of SFW then. "And now what SFC targets is that group of readers, who have entered into their 30s or so and need in-depth writing."
Though not mainstream alluring as the film or game industry, sci-fi publications still have a promising future in China, either through its self-development or being spurred by the nationwide passion for sci-fi industry.
"Chinese sci-fi industry is full of wonders," said Yao Haijun. "The first wonder is that despite of interruptions and setbacks over the past century since the birth of Chinese sci-fi, we're still able to celebrate sci-fi achievements now and to anticipate its bright future.
"The second wonder is that although we have a pretty small number of sci-fi writers so far, we can still contribute extraordinary works that are favored by readers from around the world," Yao said. "I'm looking forward to seeing more miracles happen on this land."