Soft power

Science Fiction has often been used as a tool to further geopolitical goals

Soft power
Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Over the weekend, members of this year's World Science Fiction Convention selected the location for its 2023 show: Chengdu, China, beating out its next contender, Winnipeg, Canada by a sizable margin.

The vote was not without considerable controversy from various members of fandom: during the convention's business meeting, attendees put a resolution forward that would change how the votes were counted — essentially discarding ballots missing details like a name and address, ostensibly on the notion that Chinese fans were stuffing the ballot box to win. (Jason Sanford has a rundown on Twitter).

Since the site's selection, there's been a flurry of takes for and against the site. On one hand, some have defended the selection, noting that Worldcon largely hasn't lived up to its name, and that there's no small amount of racism being leveled against China by US fans. On the other hand, authors like Jeannette Ng, have pointed out that the Chinese government will likely capitalize on the event as a form of soft power to try and launder its image amidst regional expansion and allegations of genocide.

At the same time, another bit of controversy erupted in the aftermath of this weekend's Hugo Awards: the event was sponsored in part by Raytheon Intelligence & Space part of Raytheon Technologies, a major defense contractor.  

It's not hard to imagine why the company was sponsoring the event: it has its hands in computing and artificial intelligence, manufactures components for satellites, and weapons systems, all stock items for the genre. And conventions are big, complicated events that require money and sponsorship to put on.

But its presence at the event feels more than a little tone-deaf: as the science fiction community grows into a much larger global family, accepting support from a company that's contributed to the horrors of war around the world doesn't exactly set the right tone for those non-US fans, some of whom likely hail from the same regions of the world where those components are utilized.

These two issues aren't connected in any way, but they do feel like they come somewhat from the same place: entities utilizing science fiction as a way to advance their goals and objectives through the use of soft power to try and seed a population with a friendly message. "Look, we might be part of a leading defense contractor, but we like the same things you do!", the message seems to say.

While these moments flared up over the weekend, this is far from the first time we've seen genre fiction utilized as a type of soft, promotional power.

Science fiction isn't apolitical, no matter how much you want your stories to be escapist entertainment. There's always some subtext to one's work that consciously or otherwise seeks to examine the real world. H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was a critique on the United Kingdom's imperial power; Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers came in the midst of the Cold War when the author realized his home would likely be obliterated in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike. In the 1980s, Larry Niven set up the "Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy", staffed with scientists and other like-minded science fiction authors to try and imagine the role that the US would play in space. More recent examples include books like 2034 by Admiral (RET) James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman or P.W. Singer and August Cole's Ghost Fleet, both of which raise the alarm that the US is woefully underprepared for a conflict against China and other powers around the world.

Across the world, China has done much the same thing throughout its recent history, utilizing science fiction as a tool to help the country modernize by inspiring readers to study science and technology. Writing in China Perspectives, After 1989: The New Wave of Chinese Science Fiction, scholar Mingwei Song explained that "It can be said that from its inception in the late Qing period, Chinese science fiction ‘was instituted mainly as a utopian narrative that projected the political desire for China’s reform into an idealized, technologically more advanced world."

More recently, Hua Li notes in her book Chinese Science Fiction: during the Post-Mao Cultural Thaw that "[People's Republic of China] SF during this period was a government-backed literature that helped to popularize and support government politics, while meshing adroitly with governmental rhetoric about strengthening the state through science and technology."

The Chinese strand of the genre has gone through its ups and downs over its history as authors have run counter to the country's official policies, and some author's works have been banned outright, while others, I hear, have pulled back on writing for fear of repercussions. Ng proclaimed her solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters in her acceptance speech, and noted that had she given the speech in China, it would likely have led to her arrest: "I have said things on record that are just illegal."

Image: Andrew Liptak

Since the publication of Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem in 2014, science fiction from China has been enjoying newfound popularity: the novel earned the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, the first such recognition in the country, something that the country's press trumpeted to their readers. Magazines like Clarkesworld and Uncanny have since published a number of translations from Chinese authors, and there's been a flurry of new anthologies such as Ken Liu's Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation and Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, Xueting Christine Ni's Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, and the forthcoming The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories edited by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang, as well as collections by Xia Jia and Cixin Liu. Netflix is bringing out an adaptation of The Three-Body Problem in the coming year.

These are good cultural exchanges: they help to form bonds between cultures, and the prospect of a science fiction convention held in China has the potential to bring together fans from all over the world to form relationships that transcend global boundaries. The works from these authors help to show that there's no one type of story or trope that is uniquely "Chinese" science fiction. In her introduction to Sinopticon, Ni explains that she hoped to "give you an insight into China as a whole," noting that "its unique development over the last century, and heavy cultural difference, has led to a lack of international understanding, sometimes by mistake, sometimes by deliberate fear mongering."

At the same time, I think it's naïve to assume that an event like this is completely free of any overarching ulterior motives. China has used soft power to extend its regional influence, and genre fiction is as good a tool as any to try and promote the country's messaging, internally or globally. Writing for the Financial Times last year, writer Jing Tsu noted that "China needs these storytellers to connect the now to the not-yet, satisfying a popular need to express their hopes for the future in a country that continues to face political headwind in the world."

Indeed: China's Global Times trumpeted the news about the 2023 site selection by specifically saying that it "demonstrates China's worldwide sci-fi influence," and that "Fans see the successful bid as indicating that China's great stories and unique interpretations in sci-fi have taken a position in the industry."

There are other examples where the country's messaging comes through in other contexts: Liu Cixin attracted considerable controversy after an interview in which he followed the country's messaging when he downplayed and dismissed reports of the ongoing human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which has prompted US lawmakers to urge Netflix to drop the upcoming adaptation of his books.

But it's worth examining this issue in a greater context, and this is where it's frustrating to see arguments that the convention should be avoided because of the country's past and any conspiracy theories that the country is set to snap up Worldcon from here on out: the US and its various entities have certainly utilized genre fiction as a means to advance its own interests (as outlined in Paul S. Hirsh's recent book Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism), and the US certainly has a troubled history of its own.

But again, if there's some involvement on the part of the Chinese government in this convention, it's not like there isn't precidence for that. NASA will consult with film productions to ensure not only that the science is somewhat plausible, but that it's image isn't maligned, and sent crates of props and educational materials to the first-ever fan-run Star Trek convention in the 1970s. The US military regularly consults on and appeared in film/TV projects like Stargate SG-1 and Battle: LA. A couple of years ago, Marvel partnered with Northrop Grumman for a comic book team-up between the defense contractor's scientists and various members of the Avengers, only to scrap the project following outcry from fans. Various branches of the US military utilize science fiction as a thought exercise and training tool.

What's the way forward?

I think it's clear that any of these issues are complicated. There's been plenty of condemnation of the efforts to rejigger the voting rules, and that of Raytheon's appearance at the Hugo Awards in the last couple of days.  

Certainly, any soft power initiative comes with baggage and it's worth dissecting and questioning the history, motives, and intentions behind those efforts. And it's worth taking stock at one's own performative intentions. There is no clear-cut, black-and-white answer to the knot of issues that are at the core of this.

The optimist in me wants to hope that an increase in cultural exchanges — like the Chengdu Worldcon — are more important than ever. The optimist in me wants there to be an environment where a con doesn't feel like it requires sponsorship from a major defense contractor. The optimist in me hopes that the best intentions are at play here: that a company wants to use its resources to foster an environment that encourages the sciences and speculative fiction, and that fans across the world simply want to make some new friends with the people with whom they share this one common interest.

Related reading:  

As always, thanks for reading. I'll have another post for paid subscribers out tomorrow, and next week, I'll try and get some end of the year stuff put together before the clock ticks over to January 1.