The Long and Winding Road to Science Fiction: A Brief Overview of SF Development in Taiwan (2003) (5/5)

Part IV <<<

The Reign of Yeh Li-Hua (1999-present)
Yeh Li-Hua was an amateur contributor under Chang Shi-Kuo's reign; he participated at least three times in the China Times sf writing contest, twice shortlisted and finally won with novelette 'The Game.' After obtaining his PhD degree in physics, he went back to Taiwan and started his career as a consultant to popular-science publishers. Because of his interest in sf, he translated Asimov's Foundation series for Han-Sheng Publishing, and later in 1999, he got an opportunity to start general knowledge courses on science fiction in Shih Hsin University and National Taiwan University of Art, becoming the new leader of the field. Yeh actively advocated sf through mass media and his website scisci.com (was closed in 2000). He was quickly recognised as an expert of science fiction, so his concepts on sf were thus widely accepted by the public.

Yeh's concepts are quite problematic. First of all, in his opinion,
According to the strictest definition of sf, it is not difficult to deduce the following theorem:

The basic thoughts of sf are forced to meet two acquirements: 1) they must be impossible at present and 2) have to be probable in the future. Because if it can be realised right now, there is no fantastic elements in the thought, and if it is still impossible in the future, the thought is contradictory to present science.
What is more,
The fantastic element itself is a kind of prediction, if it comes true, like Jules Verne's submarine, or is contradicted by science someday in the future, such as H G Wells' Martians, this story will lose its estrangement, only the literary value remains, becoming "classical sf" works, which are for memorial only.[42]
Yeh did not explain the 'strictest definition of sf', nor did he illustrate to support his theorem, which is restricted in 'gadgetry of sf' and could be easily disproved.[43] His definition of 'classical sf' is not only regardless to sf history but also self-contradictory. HAL was not built in 1997, so does that mean 2001: A Space Odyssey has become a 'classical sf?'

Like many sf critics in the Chinese world (both Taiwan and China), Yeh especially emphasises the dualism of 'hard sf' and 'soft sf', which causes an absurd phenomenon: while an sf title is in introduction or discussion, its 'hardness' or 'softness' would be firstly mentioned. Yeh's hard/soft sf dualism is different from sf terminology convention.
Sf writers with scientific or engineering backgrounds usually emphasise scientific groundings in their works; they also describe and explain more details on scientific elements. Thus they make readers believe what they write is true, so the stories are called 'hard sf', and the 'hardest' category is 'gadget sf'. Readers should notice that 'hard' here does not mean 'ponderous'. On the other hand, an sf writer without scientific/engineering training will dodge while writing on scientific elements and work harder on plots, metaphors and characters. Their works are naturally called 'soft sf.'[44]
And in his introduction to Verne and Wells, Yeh said, 'While Jules Verne is the forefather of hard sf, H G Wells is the grandmaster of soft sf.'[45] It is a pity that Yeh omits the background, tradition, faith and the mutual interactions between writers and readers of hard sf but treats it just as a 'strategy' of description or world-building. Being a scientist and advocating both sf and popular science at the same time, it seems weird that he does not stand on the side with hard sf defenders like the killers B. Though 'soft sf is not a very precise item of sf terminology'[46], Yeh's 'soft sf' is just 'non-hard sf', not 'sf deals with soft sciences or sf that does not deal with recognisable science at all, but emphasises human feelings.'[47] Without sufficient sf resources, local sf readers can hardly find out the difference between Yeh's definitions and the original meanings of these terms. We can also see that Yeh Li-Hua redefines the term 'gadget sf' to be the 'hardest' sf, which is quite different from its inventor Chang Shi-Kuo's definition. Yeh's concept of 'hard/soft sf' gives an umbrella to cover those sci-fi adventure writers, since they can always claim that what they write are 'soft sf.'

Besides the 'hard/soft' sf dualism, Yeh moreover proposes a dualism of 'true sf' and 'fake sf.'
In the eyes of orthodox sf fans, science fiction can not only be divided into hard and soft sf, but also 'true sf' and 'fake sf.' 'True sf' stories emphasise both scientific and fantastic elements; they also contain deep thoughts of philosophy and humanity. Human's minds and visions are thus expanded through sfnal mechanism. 'Fake sf' is mainly entertaining, being popular but senseless, without thought-provoking contents. Star Wars Trilogy is a classic 'fake sf', since it is just a traditional western movie with space settings … Compared to it, Star Trek, which includes four TV series and eight movies, is a masterpiece of 'true sf.'[48]
In the sf film section of Yeh's lecture materials, he also points out 'sf movies adapted from famous novels or short fictions are mostly true sf; those box office hit sci-fi films are mainly fake sf.'[49] I am not an orthodox sf fan, so I do not have the sense of 'true/fake sf', neither have I ever seen such a concept in any other materials concerning about sf. But I do not think it is adequate to tag sf works with adjectives like 'true' and 'fake', since the genre name 'science fiction' had told us, all stories are fictional works, frankly speaking, they are all 'lies.' It should not have the problem of 'true' or 'fake.' From this viewpoint, Star Trek is no 'truer' than Star Wars, even the former might have more settings based on 'science.' Even so, these scientific settings are also 'faked.'[50] As for 'deep thoughts for philosophy and humanity', Star Wars fans may argue that 1) Jedi codes are 'philosophical'; 2) the plot of Star Wars Trilogy is the one most successful interpretations of the fight between good and evil; 3) so and so on. What is more, Yeh's favour of Star Trek does influence his followers, who often criticise, even scorn Star Wars fans in related Internet forums and consider themselves as true sf fans. Yeh later might find out the terms 'true sf' and 'fake sf' are too controversial, so he changed them into 'deep sf' and 'shallow sf.'[51]

Witnessing Chang's failure to attract a wide audience, Yeh tries to appeal to Ni Kuang's fans in order to build a larger sf readership. He firstly promotes Ni's novels to the classic status like Chang Shi-Kuo's The Suite of Nebulae and The Night Melody, and then praises highly of Ni's imitators, Chang Tsao and Su Yi-Ping. That is quite contradictory to his sf concepts since Yeh values poorly on foreign 'fake sf' but hails sci-fi adventure novels by Chinese writers. In 2001, Yeh persuaded National Chiau Tung University to establish a research centre for sf study in her own library. This research centre is in reality a small study room, containing about 200-250 volumes of sf works only.[52] A great part of them are Ni Kuang's novels. Besides, there is no academic research done in the centre but only several addresses held since its founding.

In the same year, Yeh also founded a new annual science fiction award – 'Ni Kuang Sf Award' in order to secure Ni's status as a grandmaster as well as to discover new talents. This award contains two categories: short stories and essays. The winners can obtain about 5,000 and 2,400 pounds respectively. However, the winning or shortlisted works are quite weak compared to those of awards directed by Chang Shi-Kuo. Though Yeh would like to find out new sf writers through this award, there is no publishing plan for these 'outstanding' works. The reason is 'no enough funds.' Without appearance on the market, how could sf impress general readers, let alone becomes popular. It would be more reasonable to cut down a portion of the prize and get these works printed.

Yeh’s influence can be also seen in the sf translation publication. He joined forces with Commonwealth Publishing Co, a major local publisher in the field of economics, management and popular-science, to create a new sf translation series. Under his directory, eight books were published; most of them are works by the 'Big Three.' Three are Robert Silverberg's novelisations of Isaac Asimov's famous short fictions, Nightfall, The Positronic Man, and The Ugly Little Boy; two are Arthur C Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey and Childhood's End; two of Robert A Heinlein's young adult sf novels The Rolling Stones and Time for the Stars[53] are also printed. The only title not by the 'Big Three' is Homer H Hickman Jr's Back to the Moon; since Commonwealth wanted to publish Hickman's memoir October Sky in their popular-science series, they might be asked to buy this book’s translating right along with its.

However, Yeh's knowledge of western sf is very limited. In introduction to Clarke, he emphasises Space Odyssey series but omits later important works such as Rama series and The Fountains of Paradise; in Heinlein's case, Yeh introduces Heinlein as a grandmaster of juvenile sf but leaves out his far more important works, only the popularity of Stranger in a Strange Land shortly mentioned.[54] The misguidance is more severe when he introduces other writers. For example, in his introduction to Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apple of the Sun, Yeh just repeated his redefinition of sf terminology and said 'All Bradbury's works are "deep sf." … Most of his works have not become "classical sf."'[55] These comments obviously showed that Yeh did not know Bradbury is a writer who can easily cross the boundaries between sf/f/h and mainstream literature, nor did he read much written by Bradbury.

Being an sf advocate, Yeh seldom promotes sf through audience attracting Hollywood sci-fi box office hits, which he considered as 'fake sf' or 'shallow sf'.[56] The only exception is Bicentennial Man because it is adapted from Isaac Asimov's novelette. The only sf media material he concern is Star Trek, which is promoted to an extremely high position. There is a fan club called 'Starfleet Academy' under his directory, where fans can discuss all about Star Trek and also provides both video tapes/discs (some of them are pirated) and translated subtitles to members. Through reports of mass media, many people believe either it is a club devoted not only to Star Trek but sf or Star Trek is so good that it can represent the whole sf genre.

Though not openly acknowledged, Yeh always emphasises the science part of sf. The topics of addresses held by sf research centre are mainly scientific/technical settings in sf stories and the comparisons between sf works and related scientific field. The essay category of Ni Kuang Sf Award also requires entries' topics to be the relationship between science and sf. After the close of scisci.com, Yeh recently opens a new website, whose topic is not sf but popular-science. It seems that Yeh Li-Hua, a long-time consultant of several popular-science magazines and an acclaimed popular-science scholar, is more using sf as a method to popularise science, than genuinely interested in this genre.

There are still other sf publishing phenomena in spite of Yeh's domination. In local writing, two new subgenres have been fast becoming the most popular types of sf in merely three years owing to the publishing boom of amateur novels originally appeared in Internet forums.

The first is sci-fi emprise novels, a crossover between emprise (Chinese kung-fu fantasy) genre and sci-fi adventure, mixing sci-fi gadgetry with traditional emprise elements like kung-fu and 'Chiang Hu', or 'Wu Lin' (a world of kung-fu that never was, somewhat similar to the combination of fictional Western world and Middle Ages in chivalric romance). There were indeed successful attempts to melt emprise elements into science fiction years before. Yeh Yen-Tu's 'The Ancient Sword' depicts a sword duel, where the protagonist's failure was due to the belief in his thousands-year-old sword's superiority to any other weapons, regardless to the improvement in steel-refining technology. This is a common myth in traditional emprise novel. The short story as well ridicules other emprise myths, like the economical sources of characters in 'Wu Lin.' Since in emprise novels, these guys always easily spend lots of money but there is no description of how they earn it. Hsu Shun-Tang's 'The Misery of Golems' is another excellent example. This story narrated several big families fighting one another for an ancient book 'Kuei Lei Shen Ching' – The Bible of Golem in order to manufacture powerful golems and control the whole 'Chiang Hu'. A series of murders happened; all victims were members of these families. After some detective works, the truth finally revealed: the remained daughter of one distinguished family and her humanised golem wanted to revenge and revealed the conspiracy under ostensible power struggles. So was the secret of 'Kuei Lei Shen Ching.' It was in fact a technological paper whose complete title was 'Kuei Lei Shen Ching Wang Lu Chieh Kou Fen Hsi' – The Analysis of Golem's Neuronetwork. In the preface, its author wrote, golems were mutant human slaves who were reconstructed for labor works after a nuclear holocaust. It was undoubtedly an immoral deed. Whenever these golems regain their intelligence, humans will suffer from terrible consequences. Both of these two stories are doubtless science fiction, though they were written in the tone of emprise.

But sci-fi emprise novels are quite different. The authors' intention of putting sci-fi gadgetry into emprise is to make up the situations in which hi-tech weapons confront with ancient powerful kung-fu. In this way, these novels lose both the spirits of sf and emprise. The crux of emprise novels is not in the spectacular kung-fu duels but their hails to the aura of honor, virtue and morality the protagonists emanate. Therefore, despite the popularity these sci-fi emprises enjoy among teenager readers through rental houses, they cannot become great emprise novels, let alone sf.

The other emerging subgenre is 'fictional historic novel.' It is a hybrid of epic space opera and alternate history, since stories of both categories can be considered 'a history set in a fictional universe.' This subgenre is mainly influenced by both Tanaka Yoshiki's The Legend of Galactic Heroes and Chinese writer Bao Mi's political prediction novel The Yellow Peril, a side product reflecting the 1989 Tian-An-Men Massacre. There are many followers of The Legend of Galactic Heroes, but most of them are crude mimics. Another popular subject is the possible military conflicts between Taiwan and China. Most writers plot their works in strategists' viewpoint and depict more on battle scenes; these titles are thus more like Tom Clancy's military novels.

Sf translations are still very rare while excluding those published by Commonwealth. Two noted exceptions are Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy and Bernard Werber's last two volumes of 'Ant' Trilogy. The former sold poorly while the later successfully appeals to fans of its first book. Owing to the support of Japanese comic/animation fans, Japanese writer Morioka Hiroyuki's Seiun Award winner Crest of the Stars is also printed by Sharp Point Publishing, and becoming the most popular translated sf title in the 2000s. Besides, there are various different editions of earlier classics still tagged as literature classics on the market of both adult and juvenile sf. This phenomenon somewhat points out that few publishers want to pay royalties for translation rights; such ambivalence is also disadvantageous to sf publishing.

Coda: the Problems Taiwanese Sf Genre Faces
The history of sf development in Taiwan has been spanning more than 30 years, why can sf not be popular in Taiwan like traditional genres such as emprise and romance, even weaker than other imported genre like mystery? Sf is not strange to Taiwanese readers; Hollywood sf box office hits, Japanese sf comics/animations still attract a great number of audience. Why do they not at least try one sf book?

Yeh Li-Hua expressed his opinion along with his redefinition of sf terminology. He thinks there are three obstacles against sf promotion: '1) The spirit of science has not been enrooted in the society; 2) Pseudoscience, such as New Age, astrology, reincarnation, emotional intelligence and etc, is too popular; 3) Fake sf from United States and Japan compress the existence of true sf.'[57] It is obvious that Yeh's opinion is based on his biases, taking sf as a tool of promoting popular science. Even if his promotion is successful, it will redound more to science than sf.

In my opinion, the domination of sf genre has wiped out different views and hindered the progression in Taiwanese sf. Looking back to sf history: though John W Campbell Jr's Astounding Science-Fiction led this genre, there were still other contributors with different views and concepts working on, and then making sf more colourful and interesting. It is a tragedy that there is always an sf leader telling us what sf 'really' is and we sf lovers should be bound together to make Chinese sf better. This leads to the second problem: there are too much discussions about the definition and categorisation but always not enough local writing or translated works to expand both the readers' and writers' views. For those who would like to try reading sf, they find only pulp sci-fi adventures, 'serious' literature not so accessible, and a few translations here and there. Like Damon Knight said, 'science fiction is what we point to when we say it'[58]; readers can get acquaintance with sf only through texts. While the experienced readers have to suggest newcomers fetch materials printed 20 years ago in order to understand more about this genre, it is still hopeless.

However, publishers seem not to be interested in sf. They always argue that such a small genre with so few readers cannot survive in the book market. Is it true? The mystery genre though introduced in Taiwan years ago, it has not become a big, influential genre until Yuan-Liou Publishing and Faces Publishing started to lavishly translate western mystery novels; the total volumes printed less in ten years is more than 300, including the complete works of Agatha Christie and other important writers. A more recent example is fantasy. In Taiwan, fantasy is considered totally different from science fiction and never became a genre before. After the hit of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, more and more publishers rush into the market, printing various titles from AD&D tie-ins like Dragonlance novels to highly praised masterpieces such as Earthsea series and Dark Material Trilogy. Why are they not whining with the same pretext? Although there are also big troubles under this fantasy boom, which is another story, fantasy genre at least moved out her first steady step.

I think Taiwanese local sf writing cannot improve, nor can Taiwanese readers know what sf is until there are enough translated works available. Most writers are readers at first, and then want to start their stories after something influential or can be imitated. There are too few previous sf samples here, we must learn from translated titles, since sf is constitutionally an imported genre. Whenever we have a variety of works by authors from Douglas Adams to Roger Zelazny, whenever we get the complete works of Robert A Heinlein translated as well as Agatha Christie's, then we may have the ability and possibility to broaden, straighten, and even this long and winding road to science fiction.

[41] Yeh Li-Hua, 'Comments on Chang Shi-Kuo's "The Cosmic Incense Pot: On the Trend of Science Fiction"', in Chen Yi-Chih (ed.), The Collective Critics on the History of Modern Taiwanese Fictions (Taipei: Linking Publishing Co, 1998), p. 307. These comments are also parts of Yeh's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[42] Ibid, p. 308.
[43] An obvious counterexample: All 'alternate history' sf are not sf if we follow Yeh's theorem.
[44] Yeh Li-Hua, 'Comments on Chang Shi-Kuo's "The Cosmic Incense Pot: On the Trend of Science Fiction"', in Chen Yi-Chih (ed.), The Collective Critics on the History of Modern Taiwanese Fictions (Taipei: Linking Publishing Co, 1998), p. 308. These comments are also parts of Yeh's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[45] See Yeh Li-Hua's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[46] Peter Nicholls, 'Soft SF', in John Clute and Peter Nicholls (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1995), p. 1131.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Yeh Li-Hua, 'Comments on Chang Shi-Kuo's "The Cosmic Incense Pot: On the Trend of Science Fiction"', in Chen Yi-Chih (ed.), The Collective Critics on the History of Modern Taiwanese Fictions (Taipei: Linking Publishing Co, 1998), p. 308. These comments are also parts of Yeh's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[49] See Yeh Li-Hua's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[50] In an interview, MIT professor Marvin Minsky said, 'I was once on the set of Star Trek – the TV version, not the film – and spoke to Gene Roddenberry, its creator. I said that with the tremendous, large, and loyal following the show had, wouldn't it be a great opportunity to insert even just a little "real" science? Gene thought for a moment and then said, "no – too dangerous." See David G Stork, 'Scientist on the Set: An Interview with Marvin Minsky', in Stork (ed.), HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 26.
[51] See Yeh Li-Hua, 'Positioning Science Fiction: An Introduction to Ray Bradbury', in Ray Bradbury, Chang Yen (trans.), The Golden Apples of the Sun and Other Stories, (Taipei: Grimm Press, 2000), p. iii.
[52] The book search engine of its website provides information of all books about sf in NCTU library, but books in the research centre are not included in the library's property, vice versa. The number mentioned here is of the books in the centre.
[53] The title of Time for the Stars was renamed to 4=71 by Commonwealth Publishing, which arose some arguments. A few readers considered those opposed to this new title were lack of imagination. As a matter of fact, Taiwanese translators and publishers have seldom shown respect to original works, so they often rename, poorly translate even delete part of the book to make it 'in a considerable length.' Take Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun for example, this book was divided into two volumes; both were retitled after other stories. But the original title story was not included in either one. There may be more stories deleted.
[54] Yeh's introductions can be read in sf books printed by Commonwealth as well as various websites. Here are two of them: http://sf.bookzone.com.tw/ (The website of Commonwealth sf series) http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/ (The website of research centre for sf study in NCTU)
[55] Yeh Li-Hua, 'Positioning Science Fiction: An Introduction to Ray Bradbury', in Ray Bradbury, Chang Yen (trans.), The Golden Apples of the Sun and Other Stories, (2000, Taipei: Grimm Press), pp. iii-iv.
[56] These movies include Star Wars series, Jurassic Park series, Godzilla, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Matrix, and etc. See Yeh Li-Hua's lecture materials of his sf courses, which can be downloaded from his homepage, http://sf.nctu.edu.tw/yeh/download/sf.zip
[57] Yeh Li-Hua, 'Comments on Chang Shi-Kuo's "The Cosmic Incense Pot: On the Trend of Science Fiction"', in Chen Yi-Chih (ed.), The Collective Critics on the History of Modern Taiwanese Fictions (Taipei: Linking Publishing Co, 1998), p. 310.
[58] Cited from Brian Stableford, John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 'Definition of Sf', in John Clute and Peter Nicholls (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993, New York: St Martin's Griffin, 1995), p. 314.

(The End.)

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