Sci-Fi Writer or Prophet? The Hyperreal Life of Chen Qiufan

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Chen turns 40 this year, but at first glance—lithe and graceful, sporting candy-­colored Adidas high-tops—he could easily pass as a man in his twenties. He is cerebral, wry, and soft-spoken. Chen lives in Shanghai but came to Beijing for two weeks in October, where I meet him at a café. He switches seamlessly between languages (English and Mandarin), dialects (Teochew and Cantonese), and names (Chen Qiufan and Stanley Chan). He moves with ease between conversation topics, from autonomous terrorism to his trip to Burning Man, and midway through our discussion of Taoist philosophy, he excuses himself to take a quick call from his investment adviser. He also reads voraciously—citing Aldous Huxley, the Chinese novelist Lao She, and a 10,000-word academic paper on asteroid mining.

When I see him next, he’s standing on a neon-lit stage in the banquet hall of the Grand Millennium Hotel, a slab of glass and steel in Beijing’s central business district, giving a speech titled “Mind Reset and Embracing the Unknown: The Way of Science Fiction” to an audience of suited-up professionals. The Financial Times organized the conference, inviting a lineup of modern-day oracles—the CEO of a health care startup, a professor of economics, a machine-learning expert, and Chen—to prognosticate about the near future. To dress up for the occasion, Chen put on a blazer but kept the high-tops.

His visit to Beijing in October was packed with similar engagements. Tencent, the tech monolith behind China’s super app WeChat, had invited Chen—again, a literature major—to predict developments in genetic engineering alongside a panel of world-class biophysicists, because he once wrote a story about genetically modified Neo Rats. Kai-Fu Lee summoned him to the glassy offices of his company, Sinovation Ventures, to join a panel on AI-human cooperation in the creative arts and to demonstrate the algorithm that writes fiction like Chen.

It is no surprise that Lee tapped Chen to participate in the panel. The two are collaborating on a book, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, to be published this fall. Pairing Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-life technical perspective, the book explores how artificial intelligence will transform humankind and the global order in the next 20 years, in areas ranging from contactless dating to ­natural language processing to job displacement. “Computer scientists and science fiction writers don’t speak the same language. If I describe how speech recognition works, it’ll go right over people’s heads,” Lee tells me in a glass-walled conference room called Back to the Future (all the rooms at Sinovation are named after science fiction films: Total Recall, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek). “I needed a writing partner who understands the technology but can also tell a good story.”

“I tend toward darker endings, and Kai-Fu toward the positive,” Chen says. “He thinks of the narrative as a step-by-step process, like a manual, and I prefer to preserve a story’s ambiguity.”

Given all the time he spent at tech companies, Chen is both insider and outsider in an environment like Lee’s; he’s fluent in the language of data and metrics and KPIs. But it’s not just that he’s at home in tech. I’ve noticed that in any new environment, Chen is observant and open-minded, careful to absorb its rules and rituals before synthesizing them as his own. Zipping from one engagement to the next, I watched him make a straight-laced professor feel at ease, charm a hippie Mongolian shaman over lunch, then pen an op-ed for a state-run newspaper at night.

This ability to move between disparate worlds has proved useful for navigating more perilous waters: Chinese politics. In China, writers have to be sensitive not only to commercial pressures but also to shifting political winds, evading the ever watchful eyes of the censors. They have to gauge what the government is thinking, pay attention to developments on the international stage, and discern what to play up and play down, what is OK to write, what is not, and when. In addition to capturing the attention of profit seekers, science fiction’s popularity has piqued the interest of the authorities, who are eager to use its skyrocketing profile to boost their own agendas. “If I’m speaking to the government, I emphasize the importance of sci-fi as a tool to strengthen innovation and promote creativity. I fill my message with zheng neng liang,” Chen says wryly, quoting a hackneyed catchphrase of officialdom. “How do you say that in English?”

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