Her first novel, “Wandering Sky” (as yet untranslated), depicts two worlds: an Earth dominated by a global market and an automated Utopia on Mars. To Hao the metaphor represents China’s generation gap, in which people like her, who were born in the 1980s, now occupy a different world to their parents. In another short story, “The Last Brave Man”, she explores the role of the individual in a collectivist society through the tale of a fugitive clone, Si Jie 47, who is being hunted by the authorities. And in “Invisible Planets” we are reminded of China’s noxious air pollution through the planet of Chincato, with an atmosphere “so dense that no light can penetrate it”.
Hao is not the only one to use the misdirection of the form to explore hard truths. Chen Qiufan, 35, uses his sci-fi stories to explore sensitive issues including smog and graduate unemployment. In “City of Silence”, by Ma Boyang, citizens communicate online using a list of “healthy words”. Authors in other countries have long used the genre to satirise or issue warnings, from “1984” by George Orwell to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Soviet-era dystopia, “We”. Chinese science fiction has a history of veiled political commentary too: Lao She’s 1933 novel, “Cat Country”, for instance, depicts a Martian civilisation that is addicted to opiates and seeks liberation through a new ideology called “Everybody Shareskyism”.
Hidden meanings are even more precious in today’s China, where essays and realist literature are subject to strict censorship while sci-fi, often dismissed as kid’s fare, can slip more easily past the censors. China has gone through such monumental changes over the last few decades that the futuristic mode is a natural fit to express its complexities. When regular literature fails to directly tackle social or political issues – or is sanitised when it tries – it is no surprise that readers look to more imaginative fare. As Hao says, in sci-fi you can talk about things more freely. And in China, the truth is often stranger than science fiction.