Sebastian Zhao reviews a work from the burgeoning Golden Era of Chinese science fiction.

Kaifu Lee and Chen Qiufan, AI 2041 (Currency, 2021), 480pp.

During a recent meeting that gathered together science fiction writers and advanced technologists, the famous science fiction writer Han Song announced that the “Golden Era” of Chinese science fiction is at hand. AI 2041, co-authored by Kaifu Lee and Chen Qiufan, is the most recent evidence for such a claim.

AI 2041 was written under the cooperation of two leading figures in technologies and science-fiction writing: Kaifu Lee, a futurist who is also a former executive of Apple, Microsoft, and Google, and the prize-winning science-fiction writer, Chen Qiufan. Together they have written a collection of science fiction stories that lean towards the plausible, perhaps even the probable, when thinking about the character of our world in 2041.

Lee writes in his introduction that this book will tell realistic stories about the future of AI, stories that ultimately emerge from the summaries that Lee gives at the beginning of each short story of the all-too-real condition of present day AI technologies. To this end, the reader of this collection is given stories that counter the dystopian tropes of AI futures commonly found in Western science fiction – see, for example, such powerful works as The Matrix (1999) or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). Here, the reader is given stories that examine the way in which AI can contribute in a positive way to issues concerning social justice, family relationship, civil rights and so on.

Fascinating stories such as “The Golden Elephant”, “Contactless love,” and “Dreaming of Plenitude” are indicative of the way that the collection as a whole discusses the impact that AI has potentially on current social issues. Discrimination, whether faced by a caste or a small schoolboy, is elaborated in the story of “The Golden Elephant.” In this story, AI in the guise of big-data analysis technology, functions to intensify caste biases by alerting Varnas to stay away from Dalit areas – areas which are considered rife with chemical pollution and disease. At the same time, however, a Dalit boy dedicates his time to reversing such harmful stereotypes with the same AI technology.

While AI is seen to play a critical role in eradicating poverty in “Dreaming of Plenitude,” in “Contactless love” it serves as both a regulating method applied by the authorities and as a tool to liberate citizens from overly stringent disciplinary measures adopted in the landscape of a pandemic ravaged Shanghai. Somewhat prophetically, the plot predicts the current situation in Shanghai – with its strict pandemic control measures, big data-based tracking technologies, and neighbourhood management. Staple of the dystopian narrative, here this challenging scenario is employed in a way that reflects the complex realities born of and borne by humans. On the one hand, Shanghai exposes a seemingly human distrust of others. But on the other, the situation also stages our willingness to endure hardship for the benefit of others. Read like this, “Contactless Love” echoes the anti-dystopian mien that pervades the pages of this collection.

The ten stories that constitute AI 2041 jump from one global location to another, and in so doing demonstrate that the AI revolution is not one that belongs to the West. However, that is not the most significant statement made by the collection. That statement takes shape from recognizing the context of its production. This is a volume that was penned during the global pandemic, and for this reason the collection is perhaps best understood as the desire for the emergence of an emancipatory technology – an AI technology that promises release from the ravages of a virus that has all but brought the human world to its knees. Through scientific rationalism, logical endeavour, the world can be rescued or rehabilitated. It is a lovely thought; it is a lovely story. But is it just wishful thinking…?

Sebastian Zhao is an alumnus of the Department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and now works as a literature and writing teacher in a local high school in Shenzhen. He has interests in psychoanalytical criticism and global modernisms. However, he perhaps takes most pleasure in reading science fiction and Japanese literature.

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