But for people working in the genre, the sudden crushing of attention and esteem has been dizzying. “None of us set out to take on the world,” says Emily Jin, translator and patron of Ken Liu who has worked closely with Chen. “We’re just a bunch of nerds having fun together.” In China, where rapid technological change continues to transfigure the world beyond recognition, “one of the most important qualities of a writer is sensitivity – the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life.” Chen said. And it can be difficult to maintain that sensitivity when you squint in the spotlight.
Chen turns 40 this year, but at first glance – soft and graceful Adidas high tops in candy colors – he could easily pass for a man in his twenties. He is cerebral, ironic and soft-spoken. Chen lives in Shanghai but came to Beijing for two weeks in October, where I meet him in a cafe. It seamlessly switches between languages (English and Mandarin), dialects (Teochew and Cantonese) and names (Chen Qiufan and Stanley Chan). He moves easily between topics of conversation, from stand-alone terrorism to his trip to Burning Man, and halfway through our discussion of Taoist philosophy, he apologizes for taking a quick call from his investment advisor. He also reads voraciously – citing Aldous Huxley, the Chinese novelist Lao She, and a 10,000-word academic article on asteroid mining.
When I see him next, he is standing on a neon-lit stage in the banquet hall of the Grand Millennium Hotel, a slab of glass and steel in Beijing’s central business district, delivering a speech titled “Mind Reset and Embracing the Unknown: The Way of Science Fiction ”to an audience of professionally dressed. The Financial Times hosted the conference, inviting a range of modern-day oracles – the CEO of a healthcare startup, an economics professor, a machine learning expert, and Chen – to predict the near future. To dress for the occasion, Chen donned a blazer but kept the tops on.
His visit to Beijing in October was filled with similar commitments. Tencent, the tech monolith behind China’s super app WeChat, had invited Chen – again, a major in the literature – to predict developments in genetic engineering alongside a panel of world-class biophysicists, as he once wrote a story about genetically modified neo-rats. Kai-Fu Lee summoned him to the glassy offices of his company, Sinovation Ventures, to join a panel on AI-human cooperation in the creative arts and to demonstrate the algorithm that writes fiction like Chen.
It’s no surprise that Lee asked Chen to participate in the panel. The two collaborate on a book, AI 2041: Ten visions for our future, to be released this fall. Combining Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-world technical perspective, the book explores how artificial intelligence will transform humanity and the world order over the next 20 years, in fields ranging from contactless dating to treatment of natural language through job displacement. “Computer scientists and science fiction writers don’t speak the same language. If I describe how speech recognition works, it’ll go over people’s heads, ”Lee tells me in a glass-walled conference room called Back to the Future (all of the rooms in Sinovation are named after movies. fiction: Total Recall, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek). “I needed a writing partner who understood the technology but who could also tell a good story.”
“I tend towards darker endings and Kai-Fu towards the positive,” Chen says. “He sees the story as a step-by-step process, like a manual, and I prefer to preserve the ambiguity of a story.
Considering all the time he has spent in tech companies, Chen is both an insider and an outsider in an environment like Lee’s; he is fluent in the language of data, metrics and key performance indicators. But it’s not just that he’s at home in technology. I have noticed that in any new environment, Chen is observant and open-minded, careful to absorb his rules and rituals before synthesizing them as his own. Switching from engagement to engagement, I watched him put a teacher at ease, charm a Mongolian hippie shaman over lunch, then write an op-ed for a state newspaper at night.