Chengdu (Part 2)

(Originally Posted Friday, September 14, 2007)

After the convention, all the guests, translators, and editors went out for yet another feast. Every meal in Chengdu was a feast. And since the default state for food in Sichuan Province is indescribably delicious and every meal had a seemingly infinite amount of food, it almost seemed at times as if our hosts were trying to kill us with kindness:

“And now, Mr. Bond, we shall place you in a restaurant in Chengdu and tell the waiters to keep bringing new food. You will have no choice but to eat until you die.”

“You fiend!!”

The above photograph is of Chengdu’s famous hot pot. The pot at the center of the table contains stock kept at a rolling boil. Various foods are dipped into the pot and cooked on the spot. You’ll notice that there are two parts of the pot. The outer part is filled with hot peppers. Alas, while Sichuan is famous for the spiciness of its foods, this hot pot was seasoned relatively lightly, apparently in deference to Western preferences. So it was merely very, very hot. At one point, however, I did carelessly touch the skin just below my nose with a finger that apparently had a minuscule drop of hot oil on it. Two minutes later, I had to hurry to the men’s room to wash my face — it was afire!

Neil Gaiman started to sit down at our table and then, as he later put it, “suddenly realized that it was like being on a cruise ship — I’d been eating with the same people every evening.” So he switched places with one of the translators and sat down at an all-Chinese table. No, no, they tried to warn him, this table has non-Western food. But Neil was game, and so he spent the evening trying out duck intestines and other delicacies.

I think I have a new role model.

Afterwards, Neil and Rob Sawyer and I (Nancy Kress, unhappily, was so exhausted she had to go back to the hotel halfway through dinner) went to a tea house, where we and several Chinese writers met in a private room.

Here’s a picture of science writer Wang Yan (wearing a baseball cap), Neil Gaiman, and Haihong Zhao, Galaxy Award-winning sf writer. Neil and Haihong were the ringleaders of a wide-ranging conversation, but all the rest of us — Rob and myself most definitely included — were intensely involved as well.

Mostly what we talked about was the state of science fiction in China. In English-American terms, Chinese science fiction is still what might be called Golden Age sf: Straightforward, mostly adventure fiction, and heavily reliant on scientific fact. If Science Fiction World publishes a story that’s light on science, they receive letters of complaint from their readers.

[Right: Haihong Zhao and Yu Lei, who publishes under the pen name Ling Chen,which means “the dawn”]

This is a situation that a lot of American readers wish held true in the States. But there are two problems with it. One is that it excludes a lot of different types of science fiction that Rob and Neil and I happen to love. The other is that Science Fiction World‘s readership peaks in high school and dwindles through University, falling to almost nothing among graduates.

So of course we discussed directions in which Chinese sf might be expanded, in hopes to retaining its readers in perpetuity. In retrospect, I’m not sure if any of this was helpful or not. But writers thrive on ideas and on the company of other writers. So it can have done no harm.

[Right: Liu Cixin. Earlier in the day, at the Galaxy Awards ceremony, a special sf award went to his “Three-Body”]

The conversation went on late into the night and both Neil and I agreed that it was the high point of our visit — even better than when we had real, live pandas plonked onto our laps. I didn’t ask Rob, so it’s possible that for him winning the Galaxy Award for Most Popular Foreign SF Writer was the high point. But I suspect not. You don’t become a science fiction writer unless you think writing science fiction is the most important thing you can possibly do and that science fiction writers are the coolest people you can possibly hang out with.

So spending an evening with some of the best science fiction writers in all of China? It was fabulous.

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4 Responses to “Chengdu (Part 2)”

  1. anonymous Says:

    I miss “HUOGUO”(hot pot) so much :(

  2. michaelswanwick Says:

    Amen. I’ve only been back home a few weeks and already I miss it.

  3. ceci Says:

    Wang Yan (wearing a baseball cap)

    ——I didnt know this writer, so while I was translating, I was actually thinking you may made a mistake of misspelling the name. You probably referred to Wu Yan,who is a noted sci-fi writer in China, I thought.
    Now I see the picture….god, lucky me, i didnt translate it into “Wu Yan”

  4. michaelswanwick Says:

    I had so much trouble getting Chinese names right (not as much trouble as I had with Russian names, though!) that finally whenever I had to write one down in my notebook, I’d ask somebody Chinese to do it for me. This actually had a secondary benefit for me, because my handwriting is terrible, but whenever I’m going through the notebook and I come to a proper name, it’s suddenly readable.

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