What was the spark for “The Smog Society”?
I started outlining this story back in 2006, when Beijing’s smog problem was nowhere near as severe as it is now. But my body is very sensitive to the surrounding environment, and so when the air quality declined, I could clearly sense changes in me, both physiological and psychological. I was living and working in Beijing’s international trade central business district, in the heart of the city, where conditions were especially crowded, busy, and oppressive. I began to imagine the consequences if our emotions were connected to the urban climate in a feedback loop. How would Beijingers of the future view their life in the miasma and their history?
This story seemed more like magical realism than science fiction to me. Do you view your work from a genre perspective or do you write your stories without ever thinking about genre labels?
For me, whether one describes what I write as science fiction, fantasy, or magical realism isn’t important; the key is whether I’ve found the right language and style to tell that particular story, to convey the emotions, moods, and ideas I want the reader to experience. Labels are very important for publishers, the media, and critics, because they act like Procrustean beds that force writers into boxes so that they could be placed on shelves to set reader expectations. My goal has always been to surprise the reader, whether they like the book or not.
Whose work do you find yourself returning to?
As time passes, this list has gotten longer and more diverse. The following authors (though this is only a limited list) have been influential for me: Arthur C. Clarke, George Orwell, Cormac McCarthy, William Gibson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ken Liu, David Mitchell, Peter Hessler, Alan Moore, Chuck Palahniuk, Dan Simmons, as well as Chinese writers such as Lao She, Zhang Dachun, and Liu Cixin.
Which new writer most intrigues you?
Junot Díaz, Tao Lin. (They are relatively new . . . to me.)
What has surprised you about the process of translation, working with translators?
Translation is a fascinating process! When I read Ken Liu’s translations of my works, it’s a bit like re-experiencing the process of composition, but in another language and through another perspective. Ken is a fantastic translator who seems able to capture my original intent and emotions when I wrote the story, and convey them to English readers with the most appropriate words. Sometimes, I even think he accurately makes explicit some deeper meaning I hid in the original. Because of this, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the differing natures of Chinese and English, which is like regarding the world through two different systems of thought. I envy Ken’s ability to do so.
Any news or projects you want to tell us about?
Right now, I’m working on a short novel called A History of Psychedelia, which imagines an alternative history of China of the 1980s, before the Internet or computers, and drug use is rampant. The protagonist tries to find meaning and affirm his existence by pursuing a variety of hallucinations, but instead encounters fantastic adventures that overturn his view of the world.
I also want to share a few other bits of good news. My debut novel, The Waste Tide, has been translated into English by Ken Liu, and I hope English readers get to see it soon. In June, I’ll publish my second collection of short stories, which includes works from 2009 to the present and is tentatively titled Future Disease. Also, I’m working on a science fiction film project that’s progressing well.
Spread the word!