In March at the 33rd Science Fiction Galaxy Awards in Sichuan, China, emerging science-fiction scribe Lu Ban’s cyberpunk novella ‘Upstart’ took home two top awards for ‘Best Novella’ and ‘Fiction Best Fit for Film Adaptation’. Ji Zhu,Brand manager of Mecrob Team, sat down with Lu Ban to discuss what inspires his madcap fiction and how cyberpunk resonates today.
Ji: Hello, Lu Ban. We’ve been quite excited for this interview. To start, we’d like to hear about what writers have most inspired you and how that inspiration has influenced your style.
Lu Ban: Hey everyone. Stylistically it’s difficult for me to say. I’m not qualified to identify myself with a certain style. At least, I don’t think I’ve arrived at a definitive style I can talk about. I’m not even sure style can be discussed separate from the content of a work.
I can say that before I started writing, I believed a certain writer was a certain type of writer and therefore wrote in a certain style. As readers, many of us like to classify writers this way. So, as I decided to become a writer, I often asked myself that question: what kind of style do I want to write in? And in exploring that question, I tried to imitate the work of writers I admired: Chi Zijian, Natsume Soseki, Elena Ferrante, Somerset Maugham, Yukio Mishima ... I was influenced by these writers. But what I soon discovered in the process of writing was that there would be many situations in which my characters would not speak or act in accordance with the “style” I hoped to emulate. I realized that the story I wanted to tell and the emotions I wanted to express would naturally shape the style of the text.
To write about the parting of the nobleman and his lover in Spring Snow naturally requires Mishima’s melancholy and precision of language. To write about the darkness of the old society and cannibalism, it is best to write with Lu Xun’s biting edge. I believe the writers I love, like most artists, never think too much about their own style. Rather they are uncompromisingly loyal to the story they wish to tell and the ideas they wish to express. In doing so, they write in the appropriate style.
Ji:Many of the authors you mention are literary. I’m curious what science-fiction works have also influenced you?
Lu Ban:While I find it difficult to say one’s influences inspires one’s style, I can easily point to many names when it comes to creative ideas: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Liu Cixin … But I might be a special kind of science-fiction writer in that my reading, even my fiction reading, doesn’t center on science-fiction. My reading has never focused on the genre. I prefer to read philosophy, history and social science.
My debut ‘Futuritis’ was in some ways inspired by the film ‘Lucy’. I am obsessed with the theme of exploring the boundaries of the human brain, so I wrote about a chip that optimizes the human brain and finally occupies the human brain. The second storyline in ‘Futuritis’ was inspired by the documentary ‘Faces of Death’, which made me begin thinking about eternal life …
Writers create based on what they know and think. Each story comes from something I experienced, watched or read. I don’t think my experiences are particular rich, but I do love reading.
Ji:What set you on your path to becoming a science-fiction writer? And what have you found it takes to go pro?
Lu Ban:‘Lucy’ and Luc Besson maybe? (laughter) … As for what it takes to be a professional writer, I think first and foremost is talent. It may seem cruel to say, but I think all artistic work requires talent: painters, writers, musicians, actors, athletes ... Talent is the foundation that inspires us to begin for all subsequent efforts.
I probably started around the third grade of elementary school. At the time, I found I seemed to be a little better at writing than others. Others had to rack their brains for a short composition of 60 characters, but it came to me easily. I always just seemed to know how to write. And as my reading accelerated, I found I had the urge to create as well. So, eventually the time came for me to write fiction, and well, here I am.
As for science-fiction writers, I don’t try to limit myself to the genre. In fact, the stories I am writing now I don’t think of as science-fiction.
What is necessary for a writer is the observation of people. Human nature is the eternal theme of literature. Even when we are writing about robots, aliens, animals or plants, in the end we are still writing about people … Science-fiction is focused on human issues and shows readers how we exist in a torrent of change. What I can do as a writer is piece together fragmentary pictures of that change through stories.
Ji:Have you ever run out of inspiration? Haruki Murakami has a book titled ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, which explores parallels between the inspiration of his writing and his daily solo run. Have you found similar techniques that help you eliminate negative emotions and create more fluently?
Lu Ban:Inspiration is a slippery thing. If you seek it, it won’t come. But when you walk empty-headed along the road or wandering off to bed, it arises naturally enough. Generally speaking, it’s reasonable to think our inspiration as writers comes from our experience and our reading. Read one-hundred books and inspiration will come. If you swim all the whole ocean, you’ll eventually cross paths with a blue whale!
As for dispelling negative emotions, running is indeed a good choice. There is a big park next to my house where I often go for a run. There’s also music. As for other solutions, I might recommend a pour of Yamazaki or Bowmore (laughter).
Ji:Clarkesworld has published many translations of China’s best speculative fiction writers, including translations of your work. What do you think of the trend of Chinese science-fiction in translation? How do foreign readers differ from Chinese readers?
Lu Ban:Science fiction, in the eyes of Chinese people, is quite niche. When it comes to science fiction, most people first think of Hollywood films loaded with special effects. To be honest, I myself haven’t read enough domestic science-fiction.
As China has risen, we have broadened our horizons and found ourselves at the frontier of how technology impacts society. Now even old ladies are scanning the QR codes in the mall …
So, domestic science-fiction writers are expanding the science-fiction imagination a bit. In that process, the question has changed from “Can we write science-fiction?” to “What kind of science-fiction do we need to create?” We have gone from imitating the world of Western science-fiction to thinking about the near future and reflection on artificial intelligence. The advancement of modern technology is brought about by the prosperity of the country. When we become the most technologically advanced netizens on the planet, we have opportunity and motivation to imagine something truly fresh.
As for the difference between domestic and foreign readers, in my honest opinion, it’s hard to draw a line as there are so many factors that distinguish a reader. Every reader is different. There are myriad types of readers and when they sit down, each will read a different Hamlet.
Once my writing is out there, it’s no longer under my control. Each reader will have different associations and understandings based on their experiences, ways of thinking and values. That’s the beauty of literature, isn't it?
Ji:Do you have any works in progress or upcoming publications you can talk about with our readers?
Luban:I’m a cat lover, and my first book was dedicated to one of the two cats I raised up since they were kittens. Last year, both cats passed away, and so I have a new science-fiction tale about cats to share soon that will commemorate the second cat. It’s a story of love, hate, departure and reconciliation. I hope you’ll like it.
Ji:Nowadays, more and more literary authors are turning to science-fiction. Do you have any suggestions for them?
Lu ban:Yes, give up this idea immediately. Don’t you dare eat my cake!
Just kidding. This is in fact a good thing, even inevitable. As I mentioned just now, we are all being transformed by tech innovations, so it’s only natural that we anticipate what future technology might bring.
Ji:And what do you anticipate for what future technology will bring to humanity? For example, has Chat GPT affected your thoughts on AI and if AI could potentially replace people?
Lu ban:I don't think any form of artificial intelligence will replace humans. It may replace human hands, feet, eyes, memory and intelligence. It maybe can kill people in seconds. But at best, AI is an intelligent yet obedient animal. The reason why humans are human is our human nature and the myriad emotions derived from it—our love, sadness, hatred, greed … These cannot be derived by any algorithm, no matter how rigorous it may be. So yes, AI may subvert the current human labor structure, even the social structure. But no, AI cannot replace what it means to be truly human.
Ji:Many of our readers are members of the cyberpunk community. What is your understanding of cyberpunk and its impact on literature, including your own?
Lu Ban:In a nutshell, I believe cyberpunk is human social ecology under the influence of evolving technology.
We humans have lived through many different social ecologies, from caves to ancient civilizations, the castles of feudal times, and of course the urban jungles of modern times. These are complete ecologies that shape everyone within them. In the minds of many, Cyberpunk is the social ecology of the information age. Behind the neon lights and machines is a social evolution of highly developed information technologies. It is the result of human beings fully embracing technology and artificial intelligence.
My work ‘Themis’ tells the story of a virtual space that coexists with real space. There are many similar and other kinds of sci-fi stories—and these stories are still being perfected and pieced together—that form a cyberpunk world. That world is perhaps both true and false. We are all still watching, imagining, and searching for answers, aren’t we?
Ji:Some of our models are designed in a cyberpunk style—such as the cyberpunk spider, which was inspired by the work of Alexander Trufanov and comes as a model that can be assembled. How do you think science-fiction intersects with such designs?
Lu ban:It's challenging, but fun! During the process of assembling the spider, I kept going back in forth between, “Wow, this is fascinating” and “I'm tossing this beast in the trash now!” That’s all due to the frustrations of assembly with my clumsy hands of course!
I noticed Mecrob has many other toys that let the user assemble them: butterflies, scorpions and even giant pandas! In fact, when assembling the spider, I was thinking about what it would be in my own fiction world. With those thin arms, it doesn’t look so tough but should be quite agile. It would be a stealthy spy perhaps? The tentacles at the front of the chelicerae could hack into any network, like the Taurus scene in ‘Mission Impossible’. It’s almost definitely a device for collecting intelligence. Maybe the glowing spinners are self-destruct devices?
In the process of assembling the spider, I really had a lot of ideas about how it could live. Future mechanical devices will have a kind of humanity, and the way that humanity will come into being is by giving them a sense of mission.
Ji:Steve Jobs often talked about the intersection of design and innovation. He believed design was the soul of a product. His biography attributes his success to his ability to weave technology, design and humanism. How do you, as a science fiction writer, view this idea?
Lu Ban:“Life is the greatest virtue of heaven and earth.” That’s a classical axiom in the ‘Book of Changes’. I personally think that life here includes how artists, designers and scientists shape it. Artworks, handicrafts, architecture, design products, research discoveries … Creating these are the same as giving birth to a baby. This process of creation itself is that virtue and the highest beauty. We are all human beings, so our thinking is naturally as narrow as our human point of view. Yet we seek laws and discover them, which become technologies. We record and create from them, which becomes art. The three points are never independent. The iPhone is undoubtedly a breakthrough in technology. At the same time, it is undoubtedly art in how it designs its specs, use cases, interfaces based on human behaviors. We use it and we see the world from a new point of view, which is naturally a kind of humanistic exploration. Therefore, what Jobs said was right: not only his work, but the work of all creators should emerge from that intersection.
Thanks, Lu Ban, so much for this interview!
I enjoyed the questions. See you soon!
One of China’s most celebrated young voices in science fiction, Lu Ban’s cutting-edge ideas are an inspiration for Mecrob, showing us how art is created from perception. As Lu Ban said in this interview, future mechanical devices should have humanity, and the way to have humanity is to give them a sense of mission. Chinese science-fiction writers also have a significant mission. Support that mission by reading and following Lu Ban’s latest works!
Mecrob also has an exclusive interview with Yang Wanqing, winner of the Best Short Story Award at the ‘32nd China Science Fiction Galaxy Awards’. We hope to bring you insight into more cutting-edge science fiction authors and their works, so that we can support the evolution of Chinese science-fiction hand in hand.
Interviewee: Lu Ban
Interviewer: Ji Zhu
TRANSLATED BY BLAKE STONE-BANKS
Interview date: 2023 March 16