China's science fiction industry sets off on its next voyage
By Tao Zihui  ·  2021-11-25  ·   Source: NO.47 NOVEMBER 25, 2021
A poster of the TV show Three-Body (FILE)

Do not go gentle into that good night, 

Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right, 

Because their words had forked no lightning they 

Do not go gentle into that good night. 

When Xie Zidi, a 27-year-old data analyst and science fiction aficionada, heard professor Brand recite the first two verses of this poem by Dylan Thomas in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, she got chills.

"I could immediately understand that the use of this poem was to parallel the main characters' struggle to mankind's fight for survival—the film's central plot," she told Beijing Review.

Thomas dedicated the verses to his dying father. Their meaning in the movie is similar: When humanity is at its last breath, it shouldn't wait for death to claim its life. Instead, humanity as a whole and humans individually should fight together. "It is a beautifully written poem and it fits the predicament illustrated in the science fiction movie," Xie added.

That special sci-fi effect 

Books and movies obviously come in a wide-ranging array of genres, but people need to stop sleeping on sci-fi. "Sci-fi transcends boundaries. It is the literary genre that resonates most with people from all countries and cultural backgrounds," Xie said.

A first trailer of the Chinese TV adaptation of Liu Cixin’s Hugo Award-winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem was released on November 3 by the production’s official social media account. The snippet of the new series, called Three-Body, soon made headlines, with its related hashtag on China's Twitter-like Weibo generating 210 million reads within six hours. 

Officially named Remembrance of Earth's Past, the three-part saga is more widely known by the name of its first book, The Three-Body Problem. The plot revolves around young physicist Ye Wenjie's contact with the Trisolaran civilization residing in a three-sun system and the ensuing centuries-long clashes between earthlings and aliens.

Chinese sci-fi fans have been looking forward to movie and series adaptations of the critically acclaimed trilogy and any relevant news garners immediate and widespread attention among China's online community.

"Although any adaptation can never fully match a fan's imagination, I'm expecting this to be a solid piece of work," Xie said.

Some netizens voiced their concerns as they found the special effects in the trailer to be lackluster and fear the overall outcome will not possess that essential science fiction touch. "These concerns are all quite understandable," Xie added.

Liu initially set out to tell a story that transcends time as well as breaks the confines of culture and race; a story that compels people to consider the fate of mankind as a whole. "The source

material is too sublime to be limited to a two-hour-film and that makes it challenging to go from book to movie," Xie explained. 

Three-Body's journey from development to launch took more than four years. Li Eryun, the series' chief producer, told China Newsweek that the production team demonstrated the most genuine of attitudes throughout the entire process of taking this work from page to screen. "Perhaps the production and the investment do not level up to that of the world's top, but the series definitely received some of the best resources available in China," Li said. On that same note, the creative team also formed a scientific advisory group composed of more than 20 scientists from different fields. The scientific issues involved in the series, covering scripts, casts, scenes, props and any science-related issues, were all discussed and dissected by those professionals.

Nevertheless, no sci-fi movie is strictly limited to the shackles of technology. "It will also try to explore the topics of love and humanity, in addition to the strong visual technology," Wang Yahua, a professor at Beijing Language and Culture University, told Beijing Review. "Compared with traditional art genres, film relies on equipment, technology and teamwork. It is a combination of rationality and sensibility, strategy and intuition. In the science fiction category, this feature is especially obvious," Wang said.

The first installment of the Dune reboot, a science fiction epic directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Hollywood heartthrob Timothée Chalamet, made its debut in cinemas across China last month. This classic piece of sci-fi art, first shot under the direction of the iconic David Lynch in 1984, provides a good example. The story features everything from spaceships and extraterrestrial life forms called sandworms to themes revolving around betrayal, politics and religion, thus often considered "unfilmable." 

Despite some of its darker themes, the Dune storyline features a variety of universally recognizable elements. "Villeneuve's unique charm lies in his ability to accurately grasp the essence of the core culture in the original science fiction novels, whether it is Arrival [his 2016 cinematic hit] which represents Chinese culture or Dune, which represents Arab culture," Wang elaborated. 

This film came as a pleasant surprise for Dune fans, but for those who haven't read the original work, an overarching sense of incomprehension remains after watching the visual spectacle. Everyone has their own reasons for liking science fiction and not everyone will agree or understand, Wang added.

About culture and content 

Two years ago, China's first space-based science fiction blockbuster The Wandering Earth gained the favor of the box office and critics alike. The movie is now regarded by many industry insiders as a milestone in the development of China's science fiction industry, breaking the Hollywood monopoly.

A prime reason for the progress of China's science fiction movie genre is found in the development of the era, according to Wang. Moreover, these up-to-the-minute Chinese productions are gaining ground on the world stage with their philosophy and aesthetics increasingly popping up in sci-fi novels, movies, animations and video games. 

Recent years have seen Chinese sci-fi embark on its next voyage. The total output of the industry stood at 65.87 billion yuan ($10.32 billion) in 2019, according to an industry report released in 2020.

"Science fiction is closely related to the development of technology and the development of the times. You must express in science fiction the issues that all of mankind cares about, not just the issues that the nation and its society deem important," Liu told Xinhua.

Liu's attitude remains both optimistic and cautious at the same time. "Whether it is science fiction literature or film and television, the most important thing right now is to strengthen the creation of original sci-fi content. China's science fiction should step up its overall creative level and showcase a higher level of excellence to the world," Liu said.

Regarding the development of domestic sci-fi film and television, Liu said that in addition to creating more influential sci-fi literature intellectual property, the genre needs intensified creativity. Part of this creativity stems from the use of special effects and part of it comes from the actual storyline.

He believes that there is a tendency for domestic sci-fi films to focus on special effects and neglect the script. This is like putting the cart before the horse. "A really good story can be successful even without first-class special effects," he said.

Liu believes that sci-fi movies have a bright future ahead of them, especially in China. When honored with the Clarke Award for Imagination in Service to Society in 2018, Liu quoted the epitaph of Sir Arthur Clarke, a British science fiction author of whom Liu is a great admirer, "He never grew up, but he never stopped growing."

Printed edition title: Boundaryless  

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Hoy   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency
China Daily   |   CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860