Prescience 4: Nope and Chinese Science Fiction

Featured image: The Southern California Logistics Airport, an airport and storage facility in Victorville, CA that is used for commercial cargo flights and long term storage of old aircraft.

This is a dual issue! The holidays have been a busy time for me, and because of that I wasn’t able to finish the December issue in time. But it’s awards season, so I think that’s fine. Part 1 is going to be about my favorite sci-fi movie of this year, NOPE. Part 2 is going to be about Chinese Science Fiction. Enjoy!

Part 1:

Still from the second episode of the anime Ergo Proxy.

It was a good year for sci-fi. There were a lot of good sci-fi movies, all in the running for best sci-fi flick of the year; Crimes Of The Future, an Avatar re-release followed by Avatar 2: The Way Of The Water, Mad God, Everything Everywhere All At Once. Easily, though, my favorite sci-fi film this year was NOPE. What a movie! I get how people felt about Jaws back in the day. Early contender for one of the best blockbusters of the decade. It’s intellectual & thrilling in a way that few other movies reach, grounded in history yet innovative. It feels like classic sci-fi, like it was loosely adapted from an old story in an early 60’s short story collection, and this is one of the highest compliments that I can pay to a sci-fi movie (I said something similar about last year’s feature from David Cronenberg, Crimes Of The Future, which is also incredible). Film for the ages.

There’s a lot that NOPE is about. Chiefly, it’s about the pure craft of filmmaking and art (another point of similarity with Crimes Of The Future, and one of many movies this year on that idea along with Tár and The Menu). It’s about the erasure of Black people from film history and film today. It’s paranoid, riffing on the latest round of headlines about the pentagon ufos videos. But what I really took out of it was its commentary on our relationship with nature, and how it communicates this by contrasting its characters.

The three main characters of NOPE are modern cowboys, but they aren’t all the same. Two of our leads, Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. and Emerald “Em” Haywood, are from a family of horse trainers who make their living training horses for different Hollywood productions, with the business originally started by their father, Otis Haywood Sr. Our final lead is Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child actor who now owns a western theme park, Jupiter’s Claim. Now, for the similarities: They all base their living off of entertainment, specifically a western cowboy image.  They all live somewhere in the Los Angeles County high desert (the movie was filmed in the Aqua Dulce desert, between the LA suburb of Santa Clarita and the LA exurb of Palmdale. If you’ve ever been in this area it’s desolate). They are all haunted by a strange series of occurrences, which later turns out to be due to a UFO shaped monster, Jean Jacket. But we see how this movie comments on our relationship with nature in how the two groups contrast. OJ has been around animals his whole life, working as a horse trainer with his father and then on his own, and while Em is shown to do less of the horse training, she is still very familiar with these animals, how dangerous they are, and how to work with them. One of the first scenes of the movie shows them effortlessly handling a horse after it gets spooked on a commercial shoot, calming it down and making sure that it can’t hurt more people. OJ and Em know animals.

The Vasquez Rocks in the Agua Dulce desert. These things show up in so many movies and TV shows it isn’t even funny. Phot via Wikipedia.

Jupe, on the other hand, is a former child actor, and, crucially, is not around animals all the time. He buys his horses from OJ rather than raising them himself, despite the fact that he markets himself with this cowboy image. Jupe’s main experience with dangerous animals is with Gordy, a chimpanzee co-star on a sitcom he was a child actor in, which went berserk while filming an episode because of some popping balloon props, maiming one of his co-stars and killing two others. He ended up spared, but the event haunts him to this day. This attack is alluded to throughout the movie, and when we finally see it in full, it’s right before the reveal of Jean Jacket. Jupe, it turns out, had been buying OJ’s horses to use as bait to tame Jean Jacket to use as an attraction for his Western theme park. If you know how a dangerous predator operates, you can guess what happens next: He actually just taught it where more food is, and so it eats him, his family, and the meager audience he gathered for this attraction. While OJ and Em know that you have to understand nature, Jupe basically treats it all like sheer luck, and dies for it.

After this, OJ and the gang have another unsettling encounter with Jean Jacket, and plan their next step: Film the creature, and make a ton of money selling it to people like Oprah. They figure out that looking at it drives it aggro, and plan a way to get around its flight and adverse effect on electronics. This scene is also where they name it “Jean Jacket” after a horse, fully classifying it. After they recruit a genius, thrill addicted cinematographer to film it, the hunt starts, and after a tense chase where things start to go wrong, they ultimately end up filming it right before killing it. Incredible movie.

Beyond how it’s told with the characters, what makes the Man & Nature narrative really work is that it ties in to all the other narratives at play in this movie. Our addiction to spectacle? Ultimately, they are hunting this beast to film it and sell the film to a show like Oprah, just like every viral video of a bear. Society is awash in these videos, the natural result of human civilization expanding to places that had previously never been densely populated by people. Of course, another natural result of that is the spread of disease, including COVID-19, which likely originated due to the expansion of rural towns and industrialization in Southern China, bringing people in close proximity to bats and the diseases they carry. 

And this movie was in many respects a response to the Coronavirus Pandemic – In Jordan Peele’s words, “I wrote [the film] trapped inside and so I knew I wanted to make something that was about the sky.” (Via GQ), and while the movie never mentions the pandemic, you can tell it’s a pandemic movie – so many scenes take place outside, or with only one character, and even when characters are together they are well spaced apart. COVID is a force of nature just like a bear or other animal, and we’ve slowly started to learn some rules to deal with it – keep the air clean, wear a mask, get your vaccine. It’s incredibly of its time in a way that isn’t overbearing – the pandemic is never mentioned, and it doesn’t beat us over the head with this reading. One of the best movies this year. So, of course, it was snubbed at the Oscars.

Part 2: Chinese Science Fiction

China’s 1st commercial spaceport, the Wenchang Commercial Space Launch Center, under construction. If all goes according to plan, it will open next year. Photo via here

I’m pretty sure so long as us Westerners have been going to China (and the rest of Asia) and bringing back stories of unicorns and burning rocks, Orientalism has just been a thing. Which makes it hard to talk about sci-fi from Asia without falling into those tropes. If you look at reviews of it online, it’s often cast in this insane orientalist light, unique either because it’s a direct connection to some ancient Chinese past (as if western sci-fi isn’t?) or reflecting exclusively on Chinese politics in one way or another. In a time where geopolitical tensions are constantly on the rise between the West and China, it seems more crucial than ever to talk about China normally. And this applies to Chinese art as well.

Of course, there are some differences between Chinese and American sci-fi – we are, after all, two different countries with different positions in the world economy and different histories that inform the genre. It would be absurd to pretend otherwise. But I think by boxing Chinese sci-fi to only be about Chinese history and society, we end up replicating the unfortunate trope that English language science fiction is universal, with the science fiction of other countries being reflections of more limited perspectives – an opinion that can be disproved if you ever crack the pages of Stanislaw Lem or the Strugatsky brothers, to give just two examples that I’ve recently read. But enough beating around the bush. I’m gonna list off a bunch of Chinese science fiction works – movies, stories, and books – and gush about each. 

Tongtong’s Summer: I genuinely think that robotics will become one of the most revolutionary technologies of all time. Machine Learning (which we now, annoyingly, call AI despite it not being AI) is the latest technology to show promise, a space that previously was taken up by cryptocurrency, and before that by the metaverse, and before that by the flood of COVID era apps that we all refuse to use. None of those ever meant anything. But I think that if humanity ever cracks having human-size, remotely controlled androids, our society would change overnight. It would be like the internet, or smartphones, or the internal combustion engine. Maybe it’s because I was on a robotics team in high school so I’m biased. 

This is a story about old age and robotics. Following a young girl, Tongtong, as she adjusts to her grandfather living at home as he can no longer deal with health problems from his old age, we see robotics added to the mix, and this story hints at the revolutionary potential robotics will bring. We see her grandfather at first skeptical, and then a revolutionary adopter, of robotics, and it had me tearing up. It’s like reading old science fiction stories where you can make out the internet. It’s also genuinely emotional for me, as I’m finding myself in a similar position taking care of my elderly grandmother, and before that my elderly grandfather (Rest In Peace). This story had me crying on the bus. Poor health, especially from aging, is scary to deal with, and this story really dug into those fears. But that’s good! It was really cathartic for me. Genuinely the best story I read in 2022, and that was a steep list.

The Snow of Jinyang: If you’re familiar at all with Chinese history and the way Chinese society operated in the middle ages, you’re gonna love this one. A common genre within Chinese fiction is the genre of chuanyue, which is essentially a time travel story involving a modern protagonist entering a past period of history and using their 21st century knowledge to prevail. Essentially like A Conneticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. A lot of these stories focus on our superior 21st century knowledge dominating, and this story acts as a strong subversion (with a heavy science fiction element). This story takes place in the city of Jinyang, the capital of a state known as the Northern Han, and currently under siege by the Song Dynasty. Into this mix we see a time traveling research student dropped in, using his knowledge to help the city of Jinyang resist its siege, and along the way inventing things like the internet, cars, and ray-bans. But we don’t follow him. We follow a poor, half-turk, internet addicted scribe who is wrapped in multiple conspiracies about this traveler and what the fate of Jinyang holds. It’s great. It has a steampunk internet, geeky references, and I love the takedown of the time-travel genre, where ultimately, history marches on. 

The Wandering Earth: These are probably the pre-eminent Chinese sci-fi blockbusters, with The Wandering Earth (2019) getting a worldwide gross of $700 million, making it the 5th highest grossing non english film of all time, and The Wandering Earth 2 grossing $446 million as of the time of writing (it just released in January). The movies are loose adaptations of a short story with the same name by Cixin Liu, who is most well known for his Remembrance of Earth’s Past novels (which are excellent, but so famous I don’t feel the need to shout them out). Taking place in a future where the sun is starting to expand into a red giant, threatening to engulf the solar system, humanity embarks on a project to turn the earth into a giant spaceship, using a bunch of giant rocket engines attached to the Earth. It sounds insane, and if you bounce off of that premise these movies aren’t for you. 

Both movies take the form of essentially disaster movies on the scale of Roland Emmerich (with some Geostorm thrown in). It’s an interesting combo, one that I’m shocked there aren’t more of. The first movie has some really fun technology going on, especially at the start in this cyberpunk underground city, and the massive engines built into the earth form interesting setpieces. While the first movie focuses on one distinct disaster, the second forms a kind of prequel to the first one, taking place over several decades, which feels more true to Cixin Liu’s fiction – Remembrance of Earth’s Past had events taking place over centuries, and a few of his short stories also take place over long timespans. After a long string of watching science fiction adaptations that I found lacking (Annihilation chief among them) it’s been great to see something that really captures that tone. 

I love these movies as well because rather than the more individual focus of a lot of other disaster movies, they focus on this broader community helping each other out. The second movie even has a whole speech about solidarity. With so many cynical disaster movies, especially ones that also touch on climate change, it’s genuinely refreshing to see an optimistic take on the genre. The movies are incredibly international in outlook as well, grounding the cooperation of many different nations in order to achieve a goal greater than ourselves. Give them a try! 

The Flower of Shazui: I fucking love cyberpunk. I love it so much. This is a cyberpunk story that also has a lot of ghost story stuff. Set in a near future Shenzhen, it’s more lowkey than a lot of other cyberpunk stories, focusing on one set of people’s mundane life, but it’s an incredible flavor piece. You really feel the slums that this book describes oozing off the page. If you liked the first chapters of Neuromancer, you’ll love this. The author of this story, Chen Qiufan, also has an essay that I found really instructive about this story, where he discusses the various splits within modern Chinese society – between the coastal haves and the inland have-nots, the millennial generation and the generation before, urban and rural populations, et cetera. This rears its head everywhere within this story, from the traditionalist shaman that plays a key role within it, to the difference between real, born and raised cityfolk and urban transplants. It made me think of the similar gaps within American society – to draw from my own life, my father was born and raised on a farm in rural Northern California, while I’ve lived in cities my entire life. It really creates a different perspective, both in daily life and in politics. With a lot of fiction these days originating from the same perspectives – college educated students – and pretending the world is nothing else, it’s great to find a story that actually touches on how materially divided our global society is. It’s something that I find impossible to look away from, living in a border town, but not a lot of fiction draws attention to it – except in lurid sensationalism. Love this story. 

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