This piece will be included in Issue 45 (August 2019) of Cha.
“Writing speculative fictions allows me to free myself from boring daily routines,” said British writer Natasha Pulley, one of the invited authors at the 2019 International Writers’ Workshop Literary Festival held from 11 March to 16 March. This year’s theme was “The Many Worlds of Science Fiction”, which, as the title suggests, targeted sci-fi and speculative fictions. IWW invited six international Writers-in-Residence and some special guests to Hong Kong Baptist University and held 12 events in English and Chinese, including panel discussions, a symposium, writing workshops, and a musical concert. Pulley, in a sense, saw speculative fictions as an escape from reality and the present, which is what I, and probably also the audience, thought of this genre initially: that they are just speculative and fictional. However, the variety of events connected sci-fi or speculative fiction to the world we live in, and I found that science fiction and speculative fiction are highly influenced by reality and our present society, and they can also influence the present.
One example of this idea is Artificial Intelligence, which has raised concerns from the public due to its advancement and better performance in competitions with humans, such as when Alfa Go defeated a human chess player. One question that people often ask about AI is whether AI can replace humans as it literally means a man-made brain. In the symposium discussion “AI, Moral Imagination, and the Future of Artistic Practices”, seven speakers from different fields, such as music, literature, history and journalism, shared their views on the significance and influence of AI, including auto-written news, AI music, and machine translation. They also commented on the future of AI and most of them had a negative view regarding AI replacing humans, especially in artistic fields. They pointed out the deficiencies of AI, at least at the current level of technology and in the foreseeable future: i.e. AI lacks creativity and emotions. But still, AI has become more and more important in their work. I asked Mr Simon Lui, who is an Adjunct Professor of the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), if AI can take over the popular music industry, as many pop songs have similar chord patterns and rather simple arrangements and structures. He replied that AI can’t produce melodies that are as emotional as human composers, but AI does help save him a lot of time in arrangements and sometimes gives him inspiration to try different elements in songwriting. The symposium showed that people in different fields are adapting and thinking about the future of the technology, which is why science fiction, when concerning science and technology, is a reaction to our present reality instead of being completely speculative.
The panel discussion “Fact & Fiction: Sci-Fi as Social Critique” showed us how sci-fi or speculative fiction can be a comment on the present, no matter the society or the science. It can emphasise or even exaggerate the current problems of society. One of most significance uses of science fiction as social critique is how it allows the writer to comment in a more indirect and implicit way on the culture. As Hong Kong writer Jason Y. Ng, one of the speakers, mentioned, writers sometimes are tired of instant comments and arguments on social media. Through fictional works, the message can be conveyed in a more emotional way to the readers. However, this requires the sufficient analytical ability of the readers to fully understand the writers’ intention. Another point regarding the influence of speculative fiction is about gender roles in fiction, which was raised in the panel discussion “Feminist Perspectives on Speculative Fiction”. Characters in realist fiction may be constricted by the reality it mimics, especially gender roles. But in speculative fiction writers are given more freedom in creating characters on which the effect of gender roles can be minimised, such as, Japanese writer Kyoko Yoshida’s approach to creating animal characters without assigning them a gender. This could be an effort to weaken the concept of gender roles in society as the fiction provides a more moderate perspective towards different genders.
As the festival was “literary”, there were also writing workshops focusing on creating speculative fiction. The workshop “How to Build Worlds” led by Pulley provided practical steps for beginning writers on speculative fiction. The construction of the world in speculative fictions is very important as this fiction usually is not just a memetic representation of the real world. Writers that are not familiar with speculative fictions, like me, may find it hard to build a world full of fantasy, or worry if the world is not speculative enough. But in the workshop, Pulley provided step-by-step exercises to trigger our thinking and help us clarify the elements needed when building our world. For example, after we came up with a novum (the strange premise in your speculative fiction), it is important to think of what else will be true if the novum is true. This helps writers to develop the plot and strengthen the novum.
The festival events provided participants with practical aids to create their own sci-fi or speculative fiction. The events also raised different discussions on speculative fiction and sci-fi, providing the audiences and speakers with new perspectives towards these works other than just treating them as the product of the imagination. The festival encouraged a deeper reflection on the relationship between fiction and society.
Jerry Pun is currently a second-year student majoring in Creative and Professional Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. His interest in writing began through music in which, with his love for the songs by Li Tai-hsiang and lyrics by Sanmao, he started writing songs and lyrics since he was in secondary school. He is also fond of writing short stories that are historical, speculative, paradoxical or philosophical. Recently, he is interested in the films and the new novels by Alain Robbe-Grillet.