Chen Qiufan (born 1981), also known as Stanley Chan, is a science fiction writer, columnist, and scriptwriter. His first novel The Waste Tide, (originally published in 2013) has been translated into English by Ken Liu and published by Tor & Head of Zeus in 2019. His short stories have won three Galaxy Awards for Chinese Science Fiction, and twelve Nebula Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy in Chinese.
Chen Qiufan has contributed a new story, “State of Trance” to our forthcoming collection The Book of Shanghai, edited by Dai Congrong & Jin Li. In this story, as the end of the world arrives in downtown Shanghai, one man’s only wish is to return a library book…
We asked Chen Qiufan to write about his contribution to the collection, and how he thinks this work might be received during our current times.
I was thrilled when I learned that my short story, “State of Trance” would be included in The Book of Shanghai – a collection of stories relating visions and snapshots of the Chinese metropolis from some of China’s greatest contemporary authors.
My stories have been translated into many languages, and one question from foreign readers always comes up: Why would I want to read stories from a foreign country? They’re so unfamiliar, difficult to understand, and the entire reading experience rests on the mediation of a middleman in the technique and quality of translation. Why should I take the time and effort to read works of translated fiction?
The simplest, most polite response is that works of foreign literature depict that which you may be unable to experience in your lifetime. By reading, however, one gets to experience an entirely different life. Is that not worthwhile?
But today, I’d like to offer a different answer.
When I got Josh Stenberg’s excellent translation of my story, and was able to reread my work in English, I was struck with an intriguing feeling.
I remember vividly that day in 2018; I’d spent the morning finishing “State of Trance”. This story was quite different than my other works. Usually, I’d meticulously plot the structure of the whole story so that each point proceeded in a logical manner and the character’s reactions would be predictable. As George R.R. Martin puts it, this is the writing style of the architect. With “State of Trance”, however, I experimented with an entirely new process. More like a Jack Kerouac-ish sort of automatic writing. I allowed my thoughts to leap across my keyboard, flowing and unfettered, crystallizing like rock candy on a string dangling in sugar solution or surging forth like the deluge of a river.
I chose the style to match the overall theme I wanted to convey.
Reading it now, the story actually seems congruous with the current state of the world.
Without the slightest forewarning, COVID-19 has managed to move from one body to another. From one home to another. From one country to another. Spreading with astonishing rapidity, taking lives and generating fear and chaos in its wake. As a single human on this planet, I’ve been unwittingly swept up in this gargantuan disaster. Quarantined, locked inside, scrounging to purchase necessary goods and exiled. Yet more terrifying than the virus itself is the pestilence that has infected our minds, sowing doubt, enmity, hostility and prejudice.
Reality is always stranger than fiction.
Just as the world today would have been utterly unimaginable to me two years ago, the people of today are also unable to grasp the strange future that lies ahead, one that brims with uncertainty, change and challenge, as well as endless potential crises.
But what can we do?
As this virus shatters globally agreed upon consensuses, how can we understand the sentiments, responses and modality of values of another nation, another people, another body faced with disaster and death? Are simplistic, crude denial, rejection and attacks the answer, or the feelings of consideration, admittance and empathy held in common by humankind?
Perhaps the trailhead that marks the path to achieving that sort of resonance lies in reading literary works from foreign lands and unfamiliar languages.
After all, it is only through engagement that we can overcome the difficulties that separate us, enabling us as human beings to defeat this virus and overcome whatever challenges the future may hold.
Stay safe, keep social distancing, and happy reading.
Chen Qiufan, 2020
Translated by Carson Ramsdell @carsonramsd