In Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction (Solaris, June.), Ni brings together 13 never-before-translated sci-fi shorts.
You prefer to be thought of as the anthology’s curator. Why is that?
This book has been a passion project; I’ve been talking about Chinese genre fiction for years. Finding a publisher made me feel like I was doing an agent’s job, and a commissioning editor’s job in the selection and negotiation of the stories, and then a translator’s job of bringing them all into English, and an editor’s job of collating them into a form which showed the cornucopia of Kehuan [Chinese science fiction] out there. Then as an author, I created intros for each story to give readers cultural context. So none of the roles that others described me as really encapsulated what this book meant to me. The closest thing I could picture to describe what I was doing, was trying to tell a wider story by gathering these amazing artifacts, displaying them, labelling them, explaining them.
What misconceptions do people have about Chinese science fiction?
Anglophone audiences tend to be surprised that Chinese science fiction even exists, let alone has a long tradition. China still tends to be seen as a remote land of dragons, kung fu, and terra-cotta warriors, not one of robots and spaceships, despite having some of the world’s greatest numbers of both. A second misconception is that a lot of Western sci-fi fans tend to worship Liu Cixin, building a bubble around his work and ignoring the literary tradition it’s part of. A third misperception has to do with subject matter. If a Chinese writer tells you their story is about genetic modification, time travel, or cloning, well, these things have been done to death in the West, and it’s likely the story will be dismissed as bereft of anything unique. There are only so many themes and tropes in any genre, but the key is in how they’re used and how the story is told. So much of that reflects the quirks and preoccupations of a certain culture. It doesn’t matter how many times a subject has been handled in one culture, if it’s new to Chinese writers, then I see them doing some very interesting things with it.
What was the hardest part of putting this volume together?
There has been a huge amount of gatekeeping in translation circles and Anglophone publishing. I actually first worked in translating about a decade and a half ago. I’m a literary translator but also a geek, and I saw huge, important cultural content coming out in forms such as manhua [graphic novels], contemporary fiction, and genre fiction. At the time, most of the literary translators in the U.K. were Western academics, and there was a baked-in belief that non-Western translators somehow couldn’t do as thorough a job in the localization as Western translators. So I was left seeing these cultural touchstones whizzing past unregarded. It was infuriating, but I continued to write about China and its culture. It’s only taken about 10 years to get someone to listen to me.