I went to a science fiction convention in Beijing

So remember when I went to China back in December? In April, I got invited to China again, this time to be a Guest of Honor at APSFCon (Another Planet Science Fiction Convention) in Beijing. This was the second APSFCon; there have been almost no SF conventions in China, although there’s an awards event held in Chengdu. The convention culture is incredibly different. I’m going to do a separate post about the awesome tourist stuff we did in China (I brought Ed along) and this post is just going to be about the SF convention.

I’ll note that unlike some of my friends, I have never been to a science fiction convention outside of the US. (I have barely been to any outside the midwest.) But I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what a science fiction convention looks like: you’re in a hotel (or occasionally a convention center), there are panels where people talk and an audience asks questions or offers “more of a comment than a question,” there are a few solo presentations. Fans meet up and hang out. There’s a consuite where you can get food and hang out. There’s a dealer’s room and an art show. All official events happen inside. Depending on the convention, there might or might not be costumes and gaming. Usually there are parties in the evening, frequently run out of hotel rooms but open to all members of the convention. If you’re looking for a writer, check the bar first. (Even if they’re not a drinker, they’re probably in the bar because they went there to find all their friends, who were in the bar. Hardly anyone is actually drinking very much unless there’s an editor there who’s buying.)

APSFCon ran over Saturday and Sunday of last week. Guests from outside of China included me, Allen Steele, Lawrence Schoen, Crystal Huff, Sean Stewart, and Michael Swanwick from the US; Derek Künsken and Kelly Robson from Canada; Samantha Murray from Australia; Kim Bo-young and Kim Juyoung from South Korea; David Sheldon-Hicks from the UK; and Taiyo Fujii from Japan. Most of these people are writers but Sean Stewart is more a VR developer and David Sheldon-Hicks is a visual effects designer for movies.

Invited guests from the China included Liu Cixin (author of The Three-Body Problem), Han Song (who’s similarly famous in China to Liu Cixin, but much less well known in the US because his work hasn’t been translated), one of the stars and one of the directors of The Wandering Earth (Chinese blockbuster SF movie, viewable on Netflix), and most of the writers I met at the Danzhai workshop.

The convention was held at a museum. One of the features of the museum was a detailed model of Beijing (this was only part of it):

Me, standing in front of a lighted model of a city.

My first panel on Saturday was in the first slot, and translation was provided by a woman named Saja. She sat next to me, and gave me a running translation of what the other panelists were saying; she then translated what I said.

The panel was on future humans, and I was not 100% clear from the title (“Sparks Kindling: Community of Post-Humans” what we were going to be talking about. The other two panelists included a doctor who’s a specialist in brain-computer interface, and a med student. Whichever one was moderating opened by saying basically that the biggest problem with humans is we just do not live long enough so let’s talk about ways to extend the human lifespan, ideally forever. There followed a lively discussion on whether it would be better to upload our brains into computers, or solve the problem of aging?

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was on a panel in the US where someone came in and said something like “immortality: we all want it, obviously, so what’s the best way to do it?” as opposed to framing the conversation in terms of the downsides of immortality, you know? The downsides barely got touched on. I mean, we hit a few once we moved on to the question of, “what if we could upload knowledge directly into our brains?” (Because part of what makes death so stupid and wasteful is that, like, you spend decades training someone to be a doctor and then they just age, retire, and die, taking all that accumulated knowledge with them! If we could upload everything directly into people’s brains maybe we could at least trim down the training time for some jobs?) (Disadvantages that got discussed: there might be rejection issues, as with transplants; what if it were mandatory, like if everyone speaks 300 languages possibly you need to do the same!)

I brought up the issue of whether poor people, as well as rich people, would have access to immortality treatments. This got discussed briefly but mostly dismissed; the line I wrote down, which I think was a direct quote, was “stairs lead everyone up.”

After my panel, I went to something described as a news conference about FAA. (I honestly am not sure how to explain Future Affairs Administration. I usually say they’re a publisher, but they consider themselves cultivators, not just publishers. This article does a reasonably good job of covering them.) The news conference was essentially a presentation on what was coming from FAA in the next year or so — reminiscent of the “coming attractions!” panels you’ll sometimes see from publishers (I think both Tor and Baen do these, or have in the past.) This was in one of the really big rooms, and they had AI translation set up. There was speech recognition (I could watch the captions appear in Chinese) and then moments later an English translation appeared. Apparently there was some human intervention to improve the translation we were getting. Doing captioning even in your own language via speech recognition software is dodgy — ask any of your Deaf or hard-of-hearing friends what they think of it and you’ll probably get a rant. So combine that with automatic translation… Anyway, the overall result was I was pretty sure I was mostly getting the gist, at least.

Here’s Ji Shaoting, and you can make out a little of the captioning at the top (possibly you’ll need to squint):

A woman in white, in a spotlight on a stage, standing in front of an enormous screen.

At one point Ji Shaoting introduced someone else who was working on “derivatives,” which I eventually grasped were spin-offs of various kinds. Like they published an art book that was art inspired by The Three-Body Problem. They also talked about selling toys and knickknacks. I was struck by the fact that (from what I could gather from the translation) he was a lot blunter about the fact that spinoffs are great because they make money than you typically hear in the US. (And that means they can publish more books, someone added. Everyone wins!) The presentation finished with the line, “the future is all around us.”

I didn’t have anything scheduled in the afternoon so I explored the con a bit. I was very curious about the fans — would there be nerdy gear? Yes, definitely! (This is Yaya, who was also one of the interpreters and presenters at the con. The picture makes it hard to see that she’s also wearing a TARDIS dress.)

A young, smiling Chinese woman, carrying a Dr. Who themed tote bag, wearing a bunch of badge ribbons, and pointing a sonic screwdriver at the camera.

Would there be cosplayers? Again, yes.

A Chinese woman in Jedi robes, holding a lightsaber upright.

I also went out to the dealer’s room. Yes, out; it was literally outside, in front of the museum where the convention was held. This was less than ideal — the first day because it was incredibly hot (like, 98F or thereabouts) and the second day because it poured rain for a while. I am not sure if this was a space constraints issue or if the museum was all, “yes, we would love to host your con but all sales have to be outside.”

There were astronaut lucky cats:

A lucky cat in an astronaut suit, arm raised, holding a ball. It's quite large.

They also had miniature versions you could buy (in various designs, you don’t see what you got till you open the box) and one you could pose in to BE the astronaut lucky cat. Overall, though, what struck me about the dealer’s room (“Future Fair”) was how many booksellers there were. It was at least half books. One table was mostly different foreign-language translations of The Three-Body Problem but there were a wide variety of books, including some I recognized from their covers. (“Nimona!” I exclaimed, excitedly, when I saw that one, to the obvious pleasure of the person selling it.)

On the second day, I had two panels. The first was on cats. (The actual topic was, “Why Are Cats The Most Powerful Beings in the Universe?”) The interpreter for that panel gave me the questions beforehand. They were a little befuddling, honestly. Like “how would you compare cats to the universe” and there was a question about how we would associate cats with national characteristics and honestly, even with a translator I felt heavily out of my depth. I was sharing the panel with a group of writers that included Han Song, one of the big name Chinese authors. I met Han Song in Danzhai in December, and he’s quiet, thoughtful, and a really lovely person. Anyway, I did my best to chip in when I could without getting too stressed out. There were clearly jokes that I lacked the cultural context to understand even with translation.

I was a bit less lost at the panel on the MCU. There was another English speaker on that panel — Crystal Huff — and we shared the translator, who sat between us. That panel lost a member at the last minute due to the rain, so Crystal talked one of her friends into joining the panel. One of our first questions was who our favorite MCU character was. I said that my favorite villain was Loki, which got a tremendously enthusiastic response, and that my favorite hero was Captain America, because he fought bullies even before he had the serum, even when he lost every fight, and inside he’s still little Steve, who can’t stand bullies. (Despite the obvious American-ness of Captain America, he’s also quite popular in China; the whole MCU is.) The last-minute recruit to the panel gave a long, detailed explanation of why Thanos was her favorite MCU character (he has convictions and stands up for them, he works towards his goals, etc.) before ending with “Just kidding! Thanos is terrible! My favorite character is Ant Man.” The other memorable moment from that panel: our moderator had translated some Star Wars novels into Chinese, and at one point a group of costumed Storm Troopers came in and “arrested” him. A minute or two later he returned carrying a Storm Trooper helmet, and a lightsaber. I’m not sure if that whole bit had been planned in advance or if it was entirely improvised?

In between those two panels I gave a speech. When I was invited, I got an invite asking if I’d like to be the Guest of Honor, and deliver a keynote address. As soon as I saw that I thought probably they meant a Guest of Honor, and probably they meant something by “keynote” other than “the BIG SPEECH at the beginning of an event that ties everything together thematically,” so I asked how long of a speech they wanted and they said 15 minutes. I still went with a somewhat thematic speech and since this was the second Chinese SF convention ever, I talked about becoming a fan, falling in love with science fiction as a kid, discovering community through fandom, and discovering how people could be drawn together (across nations and languages) through sharing the things they loved.

It was AI translated. But, I’d actually tried to write a speech that would be comprehensible to someone with moderate English skills — I stuck with simpler language, shorter sentences, direct statements, etc. And I spoke slowly. One of the other English speakers told me that he was watching the speech-recognition transcription and it got every word for me, he was really impressed by that. Anyway, who knows. There were other speeches (some in English, some in Chinese) but I got hustled out by my handler because they didn’t want me to be late for the MCU panel.

Things this convention did not have: a con suite. Anywhere to sit and hang out with fans. Which was too bad, but I did have some people come talk to me while I wandered around, including a guy named Shiv who was actually British, a fan, in China for business, and who saw there was an SF convention and thought “woot!” and headed over. Shiv is working on designing a game, which I promised to test-play if we find each other in Dublin. There was no tabletop gaming at this con! I was really surprised by that. There was VR gaming, and I played part of a game called Kobold. (There were four games available. I asked the person running the VR area which one she thought was the best, and she recommended that one, so I went with it! It has you walking around a haunted house. You are definitely that person in the horror movie that makes the audience scream “get out get out GET OUT WHY ARE YOU STILL IN THERE” at the screen. They could only let you play for 15 minutes so I didn’t get through all that much of it. I had only one prior VR experience, which was much more passive — as a game, it made for a weird mix of “totally immersive, I’m actually walking around a haunted house, holy crap” and “there is a door, and there is a key, and figuring out how I ‘pick up’ the key and ‘insert it’ into the lock is reminding me of those text adventure games where I needed to figure out the precise combination of wordage to get it to do the thing I obviously needed to do.)

There were badge ribbons, though. They’re not an everyday product in China, so they were ordered on rolls of ribbon and cut by hand.

Badge ribbons. Several are in Chinese and I can't tell you what they say. One says "Valar Morghulis." One says "Thanks, Ursula" in English and Chinese. One says "WEASLEY IS OUR KING."

In the evening, there was an awards ceremony. They do two awards at this convention, the Galaxy Award and the Golden Age Award. The Golden Age Award is named this in the belief that a new Golden Age of Science Fiction is coming — in China.

After the convention finished, Crystal had explained to the FAA people that it is customary to throw a party, so the guests and organizers all went out to a bar. Crystal had found this bar. We were up on the roof, which has these domed conversation pods covered in lights:

A plastic igloo thing lit up with white mini lights. Inside, you can see round bench seats around a low table.

We mostly ordered pitchers of Long Island Iced Tea (and food) but Crystal had mentioned they had a drink called “Take a Bath” that was unmissable:

A miniature bathtub filled with foam. Two straws are sticking out. The bathtub rests on a wooden cutting board, which also holds a rubber duckie.

We all sampled the drink but really the best thing about it is the fact that it is literally served in a miniature bathtub and comes with a rubber duck.

We drifted back to the hotel in small groups — I think the last group left at around 2 a.m.

Anyway. There is something really exciting and energizing about being at a con when the concept of a science fiction convention is incredibly new and novel to most of the people who are there. Science fiction is huge in China; fandom itself already exists. But the experience of a convention, where people come together to celebrate the things they love? That’s a lot more novel, and it was clear that people there were really enjoying themselves.

And so many books! Some of the excitement at the con was over the attendance of one of the stars and one of the directors of The Wandering Earth (huge Chinese blockbuster which Americans can see on Netflix) but a lot of it was about Liu Cixin and Han Song.

Anyway, I am so glad that I got to go to this. Even if all I’d done in China was go to the convention, it would have been worth the flight. (I’m glad I spent some extra time there, though, and will cover stuff like the Great Wall in another post!)



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