Friday, April 9, 2010

A Close Call for Chinese Science Fiction


Three years ago I went to China for a science fiction convention in Chengdu.  Our hosts, from Science Fiction World, the largest and most-read science fiction magazine in the world, treated us extremely well and for a week afterward showed us the local sites.  We ate fabulous food.  I got to hold an honest-to-God real live panda in my lap.  There was absolutely no way our experience could have been improved upon.

Except one.

One evening, late in the trip, we guests asked politely if it would be possible to visit the Science Fiction World offices.  And it was!  Apparently it had never occurred to the SFW editors that, as science fiction people, we'd get a thrill out of visiting their place of work.  But it was one of the (admittedly many) high points of our visit.

So you can imagine how amazed I was to discover that every single editor working for SFW had signed a petition asking for the removal of chief editor Li Chang.  I've known a lot of science fiction editors, and many if not all of them had reason to resent upper management.  Yet none of them would air their grievances (to me! who wouldn't pass them on!) until at least two changes of management had occurred and tracking back the complaints to individuals wouldn't be possible.

It's almost impossible to make an editor so unhappy that he'll go public with it.

Combine that with the fact that, so far as I can tell, the Chinese are more respectful of authority than any other people in the world.  For every single editor working for the magazine to sign such a petition, something had to be seriously wrong.

And, according to the petition, there was.  Reputedly, Li Chang replaced the spectacular cover art with advertising.  Also reputedly, he told the fiction editors to write all the stories themselves and the art editor to draw the illos rather than pay artists to do so.  When Li Chang assumed command in 2009, the magazine had a readership of 150,000.  A year later, it was down to 130,000 and dropping.

You can imagine how unhappy I, as a once and maybe future columnist for Science Fiction World, felt upon learning this.  As was Rob Sawyer, who was also at the convention in Chengdu, and whom I chanced to run into at I-Con a week or two ago.  And as were, I presume, the other guests as well.

Science fiction is at an earlier stage of development in China than it is here, more at the "Golden Age" plot-and-science-driven stage of development.  The magazine gets letters of complaints from fans if a story doesn't have enough science in it.  So the genre is still growing and its most interesting developments may be yet to come, the creations of future writers who are currently readers-and-fans.  Which makes this a particularly destructive time to sabotage the world's most successful SF magazine.

The good news is that on April 1st, ten days after the petition was posted, the Communist Party of China suspended Li Chang, pending an investigation into the charges of corruption.  So it looks like Science Fiction World may well be saved, and that what had to be a terrifying act of courage on the part of the people who put the magazine together has paid off.

And I, for one, am relieved.

You can read a more comprehensive account here.

Above:  Where's Waldo?  Nancy Kress, Rob Sawyer, and Neil Gaiman are easy to spot in this group shot of visiting dignitaries at the Science Fiction World offices.  But for some reason I hid in the back row.  Usually I'm more forthcoming.


1 comment:

sanfeng said...

Mike, a more comprehensive report can be found at