The Gernsback Continuum in Taiwan (2004, draft)

* This essay draft was read in A Commonwealth of Science Fiction Conference held in Liverpool.

Two years ago, in the paper 'The Long and Winding Road to Science Fiction', I introduced the history of Taiwanese science fiction development, and this one is a following research key to the sf genre in Taiwan in the 21st century. Just like what I pointed out in the previous paper, Taiwanese sf society is still keeping the feature of being dominated by a sole genre leader. However, after the decline in the mid-90s, the newly rising leader, Yeh, Li-Hua, who is now the Director of SF Studies Centre in National Chiao-Tung University, has changed the ideas of science fiction. In the previous era, which spanned from the 80s to the early 90s, science fiction in Taiwan concerns more about local social and cultural issues under the direction of Chang, Shi-Kuo, and is more literature-oriented, which could be comparable to the Anglo-American sf in 1970s, a generation catching up with the new wave. The reason behind it is owing to the 'allegorical' or 'moral teaching' principle advocated by Chang himself, and a small number of mainstream writers boldly attempted a new means of creation, establishing some excellent examples for amateur followers even when these works are more like mainstream short fictions with science fictional elements and pure genre works. 'Chinese flavour', the other principle directed by Chang, is also presented in the stories during this time, especially by Chang himself, whose epic planetary romance The City Trilogy is the only Taiwanese sf title available in English market. However, even though these two features are recognised by Yeh, his new approach is more similar to the Gernsbackian way. From the western point of view, this could be regarded as 'devolution', however, since the connection between Taiwanese science fiction and the western counterpart is pretty weak, and Yeh himself has acknowledged in a 1990 interview that the influence from western sf to him is just secondary, I think his sf concepts are more likely re-invention of the wheel based on his own reading experience. And thus the whole thing becomes more interesting. Is the likeness between Yeh's and Gernsback's sf ideas merely a coincidence, or there is also another reason behind it? I’ll try to find an explanation later, and we take a look of the similarity first.

Gernsback's definition of scientifiction is 'a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.' Here he points out three basic elements: a form of narrative fiction, scientific facts, and prophetic vision. All these three can be easily found in Yeh, Li-Hua’s definition:

First, for the narrative fiction part, Yeh directly explains the meaning of the original term: 'Ke huan xiao shuo' is translated from 'science fiction'; a term has the meaning of fictional work about scientific imagination.

The scientific facts are mentioned along with the imaginative contents. Yeh says, 'Orthodox science fiction fans have a more rigid standard for science fiction; they claim that an sf story must have at least one science fictional element, and has to include both science and imagination. Without the science part, it is just a fantasy; on the other hand, without the imagination, it could only be categorised as a science reality story.' And, his most famous idea about sf: '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.' He also takes the topic of resurrection for example, explains that the author has to build a sound theory based on current scientific facts in medicine and biology, and then the story could be regarded as science fiction.

The requirement for sf nova that they have to be probable in the future implies a sense of prophecy, however, this part of prophetic visions are more explicitly expressed in Yeh's definition of 'classic sf'. He says, 'Science fiction is a sort of standard genre literature, but there is one point unlike other genres very much. 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's Martians, this story will lose its estrangement, only the literary value remains, becoming "classical sf" works, which are for memorial only in sf fans minds'. Of course it is weird to call 2001: A Space Odyssey a classical sf just because mankind did not discover the alien artefact on the moon in time, however, this also shows that Yeh bears in mind the importance of the foretell function in sf.

Both Gernsback and Yeh suggest the ratio of all the elements in an sf text. Gernsback expresses his opinion that 'the ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science'; and from Yeh's viewpoint, there should be a balance between 'science', 'imagination' and 'story' in an sf text, and the most reasonable ratio is one for science, another one for imagination, and the remaining two for the story part. So both agree with that the literature is still more important than other elements, and the portion of science occupies one fourth in the story.

One might argue that the Gernsbackian definition still influences the science fiction in nowadays. Gary Westfahl deduces three common features of modern sf: 1) a devotion to the style and conventions of popular adventure fiction; 2) a repeated inclination to present and explain new scientific development or to adhere to known scientific laws in imagining scientific laws in imagining those developments; 3) the value not only lies in predicting but also in creating and shaping the future. Therefore it is not a surprising job for Yeh to deduce the same ideas about the definitions of science fiction through his touch to later works, especially those written by the 'Big Three', whose sf works are the only ones Yeh promotes in Taiwan. However, the likeness also lies in two other aspects.

First, both people condemn those pieces of works provide only entertainment. In the 1910s, when Gernsback started to encourage scientific stories in his magazine The Electrical Experimenter, the scientific romance was getting popular in the pulps. These romances are purely escapist entertainment without serious scientific motifs, so Gernsback emphasises the science part, makes it as important as an interesting plot in his scientifiction. And Yeh even invents a new dichotomy to distinguish the sf he would like from escapist entertainment, he says, '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'. While discussing the obstacles of promoting science fiction in Taiwan, he also points out that 'fake sf from United States and Japan compress the existence of true sf' is one of the main reasons.

Secondly, and I think it is even more important than the previous point, is that they both stress the educational and inspirational functions of science fiction. Gernsback always urges this concept, even the genre he created has been out of his control. In educating people, it is quite straightforward to find out that readers can absorb the scientific facts provided in sf stories; younger ones might even have more interests in science and devote themselves to become scientists. Yeh, Li-Hua has acknowledged in various interviews that he himself is thus attracted by science fiction and at last obtains a PhD degree of theoretical physics. But Gernsback also believes that sf as well can transcend the entire society, 'helping people feel more comfortable about science' and 'literally making the world a better place to live in'. The Taiwanese counterpart of this ideal is provided by Cheng, Yun-hung, the most active comrade of Yeh. In his paper 'Hi-Tech Superpower Vs Sci-Fi Superpower', which was presented in the first sf conference in Taiwan last October, he argues that the US's leading role in aerospace technology and Japan's success in robotic industry are related to the prosperous 'popular sci-fi culture industries' in these two countries. He lists two examples: Star Trek makes American citizens understand and support their NASA programs, while the popularity of robot manga/animation makes Japanese engineers devote themselves to manufacturing 'real' robots. Cheng also comes to a theory that 'sci-fi superpowers', without exception, are destined to be 'hi-tech superpowers' because various and numerous sf works can help building a traditional sense, a 'social language' among the masses, providing 'motivation' and 'blueprints' of scientific/technological development. And thus provides a persuasive and urgent reason for the popularisation of science fiction, since it concerns about the national competitiveness in the future. As for the inspiration part, Gernsback asserts that science fiction gives the readers a brainstorm, and since the society of scientists is rather conservative, they need science fiction to refresh their minds, therefore 'the predicted inventions in science fiction might inspire a scientist to actually invent a new device'. I don’t think Yeh will accept Gernsback's image about scientists, but he indeed approves the idea that sf can inspire people's creativity on science and technology. And this is also the most significant reason that he can persuade the university to support an sf research centre.

Besides the resemblance in Yeh's and Gernsback's ideas about science fiction, some of the approaches they take in order to popularise this genre are also similar. Before explaining the likeness, I’d like to briefly describe the current situation of Taiwanese sf under the leadership of Yeh. After the failure in market of Commonwealth Publishing's sf series, no publisher would like to give sf another chance, and the only hope for sf titles is to be adapted to a blockbuster. Hence Yeh can only promote science fiction through opening sf introduction courses for college students, giving lectures or addresses on sf and scientific topics like aliens or robots, holding sci-fi film festivals, and hope that the number of sf reader could increase. And thus makes the similarity of their promoting strategies more intriguing.

Using pulp works to exemplify science fiction is the first significant factor in both Yeh's and Gernsbackian promotion. Although Gernsback recognises that stories in pulp are far from his sf theories, he has to consider the market. On the one hand, the writing of scientific invention stories he used in previous magazines is obviously poorer than that of noted pulp writers, and the literary quality is more critical than science accuracy. On the other hand, what the reader wants is exactly the fantastic scientific adventures. Hence he still reprints the well-known pulp adventures such as A. Merritt's The Moon Pool and seeks for new titles from writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs or Edmond Hamilton. He even has to modify his theory and write blurbs to make these works qualified as science fiction. Yeh, Li-Hua meets the same situation. Due to the fact that the sf works before his reign are pretty unknown to general readers even though they are often beautifully written, Yeh decides to discard them except the works composed by the most important two or three writers, and promote the Hong Kong pulp writer Ni, Kuang's work instead. Ni has enjoyed a larger audience for decades, and Yeh hopes that he can introduce some other science fiction stuff to Ni's readers. But the consequence turns out to be that the readers want more of Ni's kind. Since Ni's pulp style is also far from Yeh's definitions of science fiction, some readers has asked Yeh the reason to support him, and Yeh replies: 'the search for the fact behind the unknown or supernatural things is a kind of scientific spirit'.

Gernsback and Yeh use the same strategy to attract readers' involvement and discover new talents. Both of them set a competition. It is natural for Gernsback to do this, since after finding some new writers, he can always purchase stories from them for his magazines. In Yeh's case, this strategy is inherited from Chang, Shi-Kuo, and Yeh himself was a 'new talent' who obtained the previous award. The big prize of the award (2,500 pounds for the winner) does appeal to a lot of competitors, but without a close connection to publishers, the winning works are still yet to get published. Besides, from last year, this award started to have a limit of three thousand words (it used to be ten thousands), so that it could hardly help to encourage the amateur to compose a publishable full-size story. Only two of the winners obtained opportunities for publishing, but both have to change their tracks in the newly rising fantasy genre, which is considered independent to science fiction in Taiwan. Since this award is named after Ni, Kuang (just think about an award called Edgar Rice Burroughs Memorial Award), some people may feel that the texts in Ni's style are in favour, and are afraid that the status quo of the popularity of pulp sf won't be changed. And all these are contradictory to Yeh's theory of science fiction.

Like Gernsback gave birth to sf fandom, first from the 'Discussions' letter column in Amazing Stories, and later started the Science Fiction League, Yeh as well directs some young fans with enthusiasm to establish sf clubs in colleges. The most famous two are the Science and Sf Club in National Chiao Tung University and Starfleet Academy in National Taiwan University. Both clubs are often under Yeh's guidance and provide resources when Yeh's activities take place. Even though they never lack of appearances in media, they are still on such a small scale that cannot have greater influence to general readership.

It is still too early to conclude this Gernsback continuum in Taiwan, since it is still in progress. Of course we know the consequence of Gernsback's promotion of science fiction: the genre he had established grew up and has become out of his control, but it survives with newer concepts and talents and still in development as time goes by. But it seems that the status quo has not changed since Yeh started to be in charge of the genre. General public may hear more about science fiction, but the readership does not grow too much. Big sci-fi blockbusters are still popular and able to raise some discussions, but the audience still does not become regular consumer of science fiction materials. The key point I think is publishers' reluctance to provide enough materials. It is true that nobody wants to take a risk to try a constantly failing genre, but there must be one to break the vicious cycle, and then the promoting activities could work. Take China for example, the magazine Science Fiction World is willing to publish one or two hundreds translated titles in five years, so that they can keep their readership and have a basic market to sell works composed by local writers. Besides, Yeh always wants to integrate the popularisation of sf and popular science, and thus might also restrict the development of science fiction and the mindsets of the readers, since there is only one aspect highlighted but more hidden. I am happy with that some local publishers begin evaluating the possibility to translate science fiction titles after they succeeded in fantasy publishing. Just like Gernsback had opened a new market, but it still needs other competitors providing stories in different styles and tastes to all kinds of readers, Taiwanese sf society gets a Gernsback now, but we still need other voices.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yeh has been building his own

SCHOOL---of BUSINESS---from the VERY


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