All right. We're home in California, after a grueling but fascinating three weeks in China and Japan, spent hauling and herding three (three!) American kids through Asia. (I must be crazy, as well as near-bankrupt... but they learned a lot and had a great time.) We visited four cities in each country and saw some countryside, as well as making many new friends.
First, Beijing. While I was in town to attend a science fiction summit, hosted by Professor Wu Yan at Beijing Normal University, I also found time to join the family in some sightseeing to the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, etc. It was (as expected) hot, humid and hazy/smoggy. But we happened to be there when the government was testing pollution-abatement measures, for use during the Olympics, next year. Some factories were shut down and cars could only enter the city on alternate days, depending on even/odd license numbers. As a result, on our third day, while the university folks were taking me to lunch at a Sinkiang-style Muslim restaurant, I looked up and saw... blue sky!
How about that. Maybe they'll pull it off next year, after all. And maybe the people will like what they breathe. Enough to ask for more..
Beijing itself is simply amazing. I'm told that people who left the city just ten years ago can barely find their way around. Nearly the only remaining landmarks are Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and Beihei Park... all tourist attractions... and the ring roads. Everywhere else, the hutongs and Stalin/Mao-era apartment blocs have largely been torn down, making way for immense office buildings and hotels, each of them designed by some fancy international architectural team to shout "look at me!" There is no comparison with, say, Tokyo's starkly utilitarian towers or the moderate and practical approach to the building surge that's taking place in regular Chinese cities, like Chengdu.
(A surge financed by all you WalMart shoppers. Keep up the great work.)
Of course Beijing is the nation's capital and the Olympics are their coming-out party, so you can expect that some extravagance is natural. Wherever the new has not already pushed out the old, scaffolding (much of it made of bamboo and woven reeds) covers nearly every monument undergoing refurbishment. And overhead, towering cranes fill the skyline. Later, we saw the same thing happening in Shanghai, the nation's commercial capital.
In preparing for this trip, we all watched videos and read books about both China and Japan, a practice that I highly recommend. Wherever our family travels, the local tour guides seem surprised that our kids point and say "Oh look! Yes, that's_____" And yet, it only seems natural to prepare, before going somewhere. If I am spending $thousands to take children to this or that historical site, they had darn well better know what they are looking at! Alas, the surprise that is expressed by our guides does not reflect well on American intellectual torpidity. A disturbing laziness to which I referred in my speech about science fiction and its future in Asia.
(SF is a literature of energy and wary ambition. It will rise wherever people are facing the future with courage. And it fades wherever people lose their nerve and turn away from tomorrow... as has been happening in the USA, ever since this #$@*! century began.).
At one level, all of our preparations for the trip helped us to realize the staggering scale of change in China. Take one 1978-era documentary we saw, the first made by westerners right after Nixon's visit -- a time when everyone in China wore Mao jackets, when there were still Red Guards roaming and chanting, and when the narrator could say "there are no private cars in all of China." That revolution-drenched and hysterically egalitarian (though poor) Beijing of 1978 seemed light years from the city of psychotically indulgent aristocratism that you see in THE LAST EMPEROR. But, turning the other way, it also seems like another planet, many parsecs away, than the Beijing you'll see today. Transformations that might normally take a hundred human lifetimes, all packed into one.
Of course we took in the obligate Wonders. As one might expect, there are several choices when you go to see the Great Wall. We gave the nearest and most crowded site a skip, traveling instead two hours from the city, to a more remote locale, but one that's well-restored. It felt eerie having a lifelong goal achieved. And somewhat tingly... if for no other reason, from hauling this old carcass up a mile or two of almost sheer steps. And all the way, I felt my usual contrary schizophrenia at work. At once, I could admire the skill and craftsmanship of those Ming-era builders, their determination to achieve a prodigious goal...
...while, simultaneously, another portion of my mind -- the same one that fumes whenever I walk through the Schoenbrun or Versailles -- kept humming La Marseiillaise and pondered how many other good things China might have achieved, if the same resources that were spent on an ultimately futile static fortification had only been applied, instead, to building schools, colleges and water mills. A China thus strengthened would have had little to fear from Mongolian or Manchurian invasion. (Just offer scholarships to their best and brightest. Cultural conquest is the best kind. Especially when it is earned.)
But it can be hard to face the future with boldness. Indeed, back in Beijing, I learned about another contradiction. One hears that the urban boom has created resentment in the countryside, where most Chinese still dwell -- and there are efforts underway to disperse industry and jobs. Only, then I learned that the building frenzy you see in most cities does not seem to include universities! I was told that very few new ones had been opened in recent years and few were planned. Now that surprised me. America's rise directly correlated with the burgeoning of land grant colleges. Heck, the University of California is establishing new campuses, even today.
Still, the one campus in China that I did see - Beijing Normal University - was profoundly impressive. Totally rebuilt and gleaming, right near the urban core. Moreover, BNU has the only post-graduate program in science fiction in all of Asia! A proud statement -- tempered somewhat by the fact that it resides in the Department of Childrens' Literature. During the SF Summit that was graciously hosted there, I met professors and writers who seemed enthusiastic about the future of SF in China.
On the other hand, the two film producers in attendance told us (with admirable frankness) that they doubted they would ever be funded to create science fiction movies. So low is the reputation of SF among those actually in power.
I told them (confidently) that this would change. No nation that assertively seeks the future can for long avoid literature that thinks about the future. Indeed, that weird reflex to despise SF -- which is shared by most postmodernist or neoMarxist lit departments in American universities -- seems so nonsensical that it has to be supported by crude stereotypes of the genre. Caricatures that portray ALL of the field as silly and childish... just like Star Wars, the example that is cited over and over again, to the detriment of the entire genre. Yes, in China, too. (This may constitute the worst of many ways that George Lucas harmed a field he supposedly loved.)
In my speech - which I delivered with some modifications also in Chengdu and Yokohama - I tried to explain that SF is about much more than simply waving magic swords and/or encouraging children to like science. (A pair of traits that, ironically, nobody seemed to find contradictory.) Rather, science fiction - at its best - is about seeking wider perspectives and deeper horizons. All else - from aliens to spaceships to time travel - is mere furniture, and not even necessary, at that.
I explained that only one in ten anglo SF authors knows much about science. But nearly all of us read history. Devour it. Perhaps our field should have been called speculative history instead of Science Fiction, because it is really about the panorama and tragicomedy of the human story. Only with one added ingredient -- a brave willingness to ponder change. To do mental experiments about possible pasts, alternate presents, extrapolated futures.
To illustrate, I offered an example to those doubters at the Beijing conference. "What if --" I began with the sacred phrase of our genre -- "What if Admiral Zheng He, who sailed a Chinese fleet to Zanzibar when Henry the Navigator was still sucking his thumb, had been allowed to continue his voyages? Perhaps sailing into Lisbon with a hundred ships, just as Henry was getting ready to dispatch one or two? How might history have changed?"
"That is science fiction?" One of the film producers asked, expressing some excitement. "Why don't you write that story for us!"
(Later that very day -- I learned that a Chinese SF author has already done exactly that, extrapolating Zheng He's voyages into an imagined circumnavigation of the globe, long before Magellan.)
Ah well. I made some introductions. We spread some memes. My wonderful Beijing literary agent, Jackie Huang, added her own voice. Who knows? Maybe some minds were shifted, a little.
Upon leaving Beijing, we entered China's interior, traveling to the fabled city of Xian, home of the legendary Terracotta Army of the First Emperor -- clay soldiers, two millennia old, that have stirred imaginations worldwide, including my own. (Along with the golem myth, they helped to inspire my novel KILN PEOPLE.) Our kids met two of the men who actually made the archaeological discovery of the century, while digging a well, back in 1974. A stirring and unforgettable visit... and, of course, I felt the same schizophrenic mix of admiration and resentment. La Marseiillaise played again, softly, in the background. Old Chin sure did a lot of interesting thing... but he was a terrible bastard. Oh. Stay tuned, maybe for a hundred years, till the Chinese government finally allows excavation of his actual tomb. It may be stunning.
Xian also has the largest intact city wall and moat in the world -- truly vast. An impressive place.
We then took a train across Sichuan, in order to be able to see and experience some of China proper, outside the hazy cities. A jostling, gritty style of travel that put us much closer to the people. It was a time when I might wish that I had more than a smattering of the language. The tour guides and intellectuals and SF fans could reach out to me in English. But the folks who got on and off the train... it was the one time I went wistful for that long ago time when Cheryl and I took months to wind our way around the world, just us, with time enough for adventure.
I could go on about the countryside of Sichuan -- the mountains and villages, the poverty and glimmers of rapid development, the colors of rice and water and steep hills and bamboo -- but I have already stretched this out too long.
Arriving in Chengdu, we re-entered the world of SF, as a crowd of fans wearing the same conference t-shirt waved signs to pick us up from the station. Cheryl and the kids then visited pandas while I attended convention hosted by SF World Magazine, the science fiction periodical with the highest circulation in all of history. The event was much bigger than expected, with 5,000 people attending! What an experience to look out from the red-carpeted steps of the Sichuan Museum of Science upon such a crowd, while the science minister introduced us under one of the last, huge statues of Mao left standing in China. There followed endless toasts and banquets, punctuating speeches and spells of wading through autograph seekers (a "star treatment" that you sure don't get from blithe North American fans, who - of course - have seen it all.)
Wonderful hospitality. And you could feel the intense hunger of so many young people for the kind of thoughts and excitement that science fiction has to offer. (It's still a little risky in China, where some stodgy bureaucrats still call SF "spiritual pollution." Hence, there is also a bit of a courage-high, I imagine, just like I sensed from eastern eurpoean fans, before the Iron Curtain fell.) In any event, I hope that the fans and organizers got everything they wanted and needed from the event.
After that, starting at 6am, we Brins made a quick dash for the airport in order to attempt the impossible. A quick - but surprisingly comprehensive - one-day visit to Shanghai. A blitz through that bustling, legendary city in time to catch an afternoon flight to Tokyo! It was risky and perhaps foolish. It might not even have been possible without the amazing mag-lev passenger train - the only one open to public use in all the world - running from Pudong to the airport. We watched the in-car spedometer climb to 430 kilometers per hour, approaching half the speed of sound, before falling to 330 as the other car rushed by in the opposite direction, in a whoosh and blur. Probably the biggest product of speed, closeness and mass that I have ever experienced. (Oh, and Shanghai was amazing, too.)
And that was part one of the trip....followed by more tourism in Japan, returning to see friends and sights in Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto... all of it leading up to the World Science Fiction convention, in Yokohama!
But more on that, later.
For now, let me conclude that - while exhausting - it was also a terrific experience, especially getting to know many fine friends, both old and new, and broadening our horizons a bit. Our view of the world. It is important to hunger for fresh - even disturbing - perspectives. We learned so very much, about cultures and different ways of viewing history, the present and the future.
Above all, seeds were planted. Roots nurtured.
For the spirit of SF needs many homes.
Especially if American civilization continues its funk, its decline into nostalgia, silly grudges and lost confidence.
In that case, some other land will pick up the spirit of adventure that we fumbled and dropped. Some other people will become the 21st Century's new "Chung Kuo"... its new central kingdom.
For the sake of humanity and a better future, we had better hope that the leadership they show will be one of tolerance and eccentric wisdom.
Those, too, are lessons taught by a literature that rattles assumptions and turns the head, focusing our attention on tomorrow's undiscovered country.