Thursday, September 13, 2007

Chengdu Memories

A trip report for China's SCIENCE FICTION WORLD magazine

by Robert J. Sawyer

I'm back safe and sound in Canada after two wonderful weeks in China. The highlight for me, of course, was the Chengdu Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival, at which I won the Galaxy Award for Most Popular Foreign Author of the Year. I must say, in all my travels, all over this wonderful world, I've never before been mobbed like a rock star -- nor have I ever been treated so well. The warmth, kindness, and hospitality of everyone I met in China was a joy to behold.

I was pleased to have the opportunity to give a speech entitled "Science Fiction as a Mirror for Reality," and I was glad that it engendered some spirited discussion. Many thanks to my translator, Nick! Indeed, special thanks go to all the interpreters who worked so hard at the conference so that those of us who only speak English could be included.

I also very much enjoyed the other speeches I heard (sadly, I didn't get to hear them all!), including Betty Anne Hull's and Michael Swanwick's. As it happened, Michael was a finalist for the Hugo Award to be given out in Japan right after the Chengdu conference ended, but he couldn't recall which of the three short-fiction categories -- short story, novelette, or novella -- his nominee fell into. I had fun teasing him after his talk -- which went way over time -- about his poor ability to estimate how long something was! He took it in good humor, of course.

Although I had been friends with Nancy Kress, David Brin, and Betty Anne Hull for years, one of the many joys of Chengdu was getting to know Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and David Hill -- I'd met Michael and Neil before, but only really in passing, and had not had the pleasure of meeting David. Given the incredible heat in Chengdu, I'm glad that my usual garb at conventions is Hawaiian shirts -- instead of Neil Gaiman's heavy black leather jacket!

I was very pleased to get to visit the giant, spacious, beautiful offices of Science Fiction World. The two best-selling science-fiction magazines in English are Analog Science Fiction and Fact and Asimov's Science Fiction. In 1985, I got to go to New York City to interview the editors of each for a documentary series I was doing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the history of science fiction. But I was told I couldn't see the editors (at the time, Stanley Schmidt and Gardner Dozois, respectively) on the same day -- because they shared a desk, and they couldn't both come into the office on the same day! That's how small SF publishing is in North America! Although we in the west often think of these magazines as the big boys, Science Fiction World outsells both of them combined by many times. A lot of us in the west worry about the declining sales of science fiction there; I'd say it's quite possible that the future of the genre really is in China.

And that's why I'm so proud that Science Fiction World chose to reprint a number of my "On Writing" columns, originally written for the Canadian SF magazine On Spec. To think that I've contributed, in a small way, to helping shape the next generation of Chinese SF writers makes me very happy.

One of the many things that impressed me about the conference was the huge involvement and sponsorship by the government. I totally agree with the position that reading science fiction encourages young people to go into careers in science (despite Michael Swanwick's statement in his talk at the conference). I just wish that governments elsewhere -- including my own in Canada! -- would take science fiction as seriously.

Michael's paper in the conference-proceedings book, which talked about different movements and schools of English-language SF, was very interesting, and I am looking forward to seeing what sort of schools and movements of Chinese SF develop in the years to come. I suspect it's going to diverge from what we've done in the west, taking the field in new and exciting directions.

I do want to mention how beautiful the Galaxy Award trophies is -- it's absolutely lovely. I've won other awards, but the Galaxy is, without doubt, one of the prettiest. It's going to sit right next to my Hugo in my living room in Toronto.

Everything about the conference was first-rate, but there was more to my trip to Chengdu than just that. Sichuan province has a reputation we know even in Canada for spicy, hot food -- and I'm afraid my weak western stomach was rarely up to the task. But the good company at the wonderful meals (including two hot-pot meals) was absolutely wonderful, and our hosts were always gracious and kind.

And, of course, the Chengdu area is known for panda bears. Our outing to the panda facility was amazing, and for the rest of my life I will happily remember having a panda bear sit in my lap! What an experience!

On the final night of the conference, editor Jenny Bai, Neil Gaiman, Nancy Kress, Michael Swanwick, my wife Carolyn Clink, myself, and others had a nice time unwinding in the hotel bar -- and Neil expressed the hope that it wouldn't be another 10 years before another major international SF conference in China.

I agree wholeheartedly. This was one of the very best conventions I've ever been to, and one of the absolute top experiences of my life. As it happened, I had to choose between attending the Chengdu conference or the World Science Fiction Convention, which was held the following week in Yokohama, Japan; I simply couldn't take the time to go to both. But I know I made the right choice -- and I'm very much looking forward to the next one! As those who were at the Leisure Forum just after the conference know, Carolyn, Nancy, Michael, and I -- who sang the American folk song "O Susanna" for the crowd -- really can't sing at all. But we're going to practice, and next time ... well, we'll be less bad.

To the future!


At September 13, 2007 7:26 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you had an incredible time in China, Rob! I'm happy for you overall, though I'm still bitter about the panda...

John F
Truro, NS

At September 14, 2007 9:46 AM , Blogger Lou Anders said...

I was almost there - my wife and I ended up postponing our China trip, which also cut my time in Japan down to 2 days. Really wish I'd been there. And Science Fiction World fascinates me.


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