How Chinese science fiction went from underground magazines to Netflix extravaganza

For a few days in October 2023, the capital of the science fiction world was Chengdu, China. Fans traveled from around the world as Worldcon, sci-fi’s biggest annual event, was held in the country for the first time.

It was a rare moment when Chinese and international fans could get together without worrying about the increasingly fraught politics of China’s relationship with the West or Beijing’s tightening grip on expression.

For Chinese fans like Tao Bolin, an influencer who flew from the southern province of Guangdong for the event, it felt like the world finally wanted to read Chinese literature. Fans and authors mingled in a brand new Science Fiction Museum, designed by the prestigious Zaha Hadid Architects in the shape of a huge steel starburst over a lake.

But three months later, much of that goodwill turned sour as a scandal erupted over allegations that organizers of the Hugo awards — sci-fi’s biggest prize, awarded at Worldcon — disqualified candidates to placate Chinese censors.

The event embodied the contradictions that Chinese science fiction has faced for decades. In 40 years, it’s gone from a politically suspect niche to one of China’s most successful cultural exports, with author Liu Cixin gaining an international following that includes fans like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. But it’s had to overcome obstacles created by geopolitics for just as long.

With a big-budget Netflix adaptation of his “The Three-Body Problem” set to drop in March, produced by the same showrunners as “Game of Thrones,” Chinese sci-fi could reach its biggest audience yet.

Getting there took decades of work by dedicated authors, editors and cultural bureaucrats who believed that science fiction could bring people together.

“Sci-fi has always been a bridge between different cultures and countries,” says Yao Haijun, the editor-in-chief of Science Fiction World, China’s oldest sci-fi magazine.

Chinese sci-fi’s journey abroad started with another convention in Chengdu three decades ago, but politics nearly derailed that one before it could get off the ground.

Science Fiction World planned to host a writers’ conference in the city in 1991. But as news of the brutal crackdown on student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square circled the globe in 1989, foreign speakers were dropping out.

The magazine sent a small delegation to Worldcon 1990, hosted in The Hague, to save the conference.

Its leader was Shen Zaiwang, an English translator in Sichuan province’s Foreign Affairs Department who fell in love with sci-fi as a child. He packed instant noodles for the weeks-long train journey across China and the fragmenting Soviet Union.

In The Hague, Shen used toy pandas and postcards of Chengdu to make the case that the city — more than 1,800 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Beijing — was friendly and safe to visit.

“We tried to introduce our province as a safe place, and that the people in Sichuan really hope the foreign science fiction writers can come and have a look and encourage Chinese young people to read more science fiction novels,” Shen says.

In the end, a dozen foreign authors attended the conference. It was a small start, but it was more than anyone could have imagined a few years earlier.

China’s science fiction community faced suspicion at home as well.

Science fiction magazines such as Chengdu’s Science Fiction World started being launched in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as China began opening to the world after the Mao era.

But in the early 1980s, Beijing initiated a nationwide “spiritual pollution cleaning” campaign to quash the influence of the decadent West, and sci-fi was accused of being unscientific and out of line with official ideology. Most of the young publications were shuttered.

Science Fiction World’s editors kept going.

“They believed if China wanted to develop, it needed to be an innovative country — it needed science fiction,” Mr. Yao, the editor, said in a recorded public address in 2017.

In 1997, the magazine organized another international event in Beijing, headlined by U.S. and Russian astronauts. The conference got attention in the Chinese press, giving sci-fi a cool new aura of innovation, exploration and imagination, Mr. Yao says.

China’s growing sci-fi fandom was devouring translated works from abroad, but few people abroad were reading Chinese stories. Liu Cixin was going to change that.

A soft-spoken engineer at a power plant in the coal-dominated province of Shanxi, his stories were hits with genre fans.

But “The Three-Body Problem,” first serialized by Science Fiction World in 2006, reached a new level of popularity, says Yao.

Authorities took note. The China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation, the state-owned publications exporter, picked up the novel and its two sequels.

The translations were intended from the start as “a big cultural export from China to the world, something very highly visible,” says Joel Martinsen, who translated the trilogy’s second volume, “The Dark Forest.”

But no one could have anticipated the critical and popular success: In 2015, Liu became the first Asian author to win a Hugo Award for a novel.

“There was something quite fresh and raw and eye-catching, and even sometimes very dark and ruthless in his work,” says Mr. Song Mingwei, a professor of Chinese literature at Wellesley College.

The next year, Beijing-based writer Hao Jingfang beat Stephen King to win a Hugo for short fiction with a story about social inequality in a surreal version of China’s capital.

Liu’s translations were also a political breakthrough for the genre: In two decades, it had gone from barely tolerated to a flagship export of China’s official cultural machine.

The government encouraged the growth of an “industry” spanning movies, video games, books, magazines and exhibits, and set up an official research center in 2020 to track its rise.

Worldcon Chengdu was to be the crowning achievement of these efforts.

The event itself was seen as a success. But in January, when the Hugo committee disclosed vote totals, the critics’ suspicions seemed to be confirmed. It turned out several candidates had been disqualified, raising censorship concerns. They included New York Times bestselling authors R. F. Kuang and Xiran Jay Zhao, both politically active writers with family ties to China.

Leaked internal emails — which The Associated Press could not independently verify — appeared to show that the awards committee spent weeks checking nominees’ works and social media profiles for statements that could offend Beijing, and sent reports on these to Chinese counterparts, according to an investigation by two sci-fi authors and journalists. They don’t show how the reports were used or who made the decisions about disqualification.

The Hugo awards organizers did not respond to requests for comment by the AP.

Despite the frictions, Chinese sci-fi remains poised to continue its international rise. Netflix’s adaptation of the “The Three-Body Problem” could bring it to a vast new audience, a coming-out orders of magnitude bigger than Shen Zaiwang’s trip to The Hague.

And insiders like Mr. Song and Mr. Yao are looking forward to a new generation of Chinese sci-fi authors that’s starting to be translated into English now.

It’s led by younger, female writers who were educated abroad such as Regina Kanyu Wang and Tang Fei. Their works explore themes that resonate with younger audiences, Mr. Song says, such as gender fluidity and climate catastrophes.

“When doing anything with the endorsement of either the market or the government, imagination can dry up very quickly,” Mr. Song says. “I think often the important thing happens on the margin.”

Mr. Yao continues to believe in sci-fi’s role as a bridge between cultures, even in turbulent times.

“As long as there is communication,” he says, “we’ll be able to find some things in common.”

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Anant Nag reminisces his 50-year journey in cinema

When he entered the world of film, Anant Nag was lanky and handsome. Whether he played the mean, selfish son of a landlord in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur, the conniving brother in Kalyug, or the romantic pilot in Puttanna Kanagal’s Bayalu Daari, he portrayed every role with  élan and intensity. He could evoke sympathy as a lovelorn youngster as well as hatred for his negative roles. He was capable of tickling our funny bone with his comedy turns in films such as the Ganeshana Maduve series.

Though he was a newcomer, the audience saw him sharing the screen space with legendary actors of his time like the late actor Kalpana and Julie Lakshmi. If his commercial films ran houseful across Karnataka, he also worked in parallel cinema in Kannada (Minchina Ota, Accident, Nodi Swamy Naavu Iradu Heega) and Hindi (Nishant).

He was part of the iconic television series, Malgudi Days, directed by his late brother Shankar. The two brothers were the main propagators of Kannada theatre in Bengaluru in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They even founded the amateur theatre group — Sanket. Despite his success in cinema, Anant always made time for theatre.

With Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar in a Kannada Film Kanneshwara Rama
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

From his debut in PV Nanjaraja Urs’ Kannada film Sankalpa to KGF Chapter 1, Anant has been there and done that. He has worked with legends and budding directors.

This year, he celebrates 50 years in the film industry. Even today, he is a busy man. The actor is being felicitated by fans and organisations for the remarkable milestone.

Amidst this hectic schedule, Anant, speaks to The Hindu over a call about cinema and what it means to him starting at the very beginning.

One way ticket

“I grew up in two ashrams — one in Uttara Karnataka and then in Dakshina Karnataka. I led a sheltered life and was adept at the life in the ashrams. Academically, I was in the top five ranks always.” Things changed drastically for Anant when the family moved to Mumbai. “School was in English medium. I could not cope and felt lost. Suddenly, I was at the bottom of the class. I chose arts, I was unsuccessful, tried literature, failed there too.” Anant tried to join the Army, but was rejected as he was underweight. “I lost interest in academics, and was thinking of going back to the ashram.”

That was when someone suggested acting. “Those days, failures were told by teachers and family to become actors. It was considered a profession for those who could do nothing else. I got a break in theatre and felt destiny had ushered me on stage.”

Though terrified initially, Anant says, he dived into the world of rehearsals and characters. “I started discovering myself. I regained my lost confidence. Theatre helped me find myself and in five years I had acted in 50 plays.” Anant started his stage journey with Konkani theatre. “I enjoyed acting because though my personal life was miserable, I could be anyone on stage. Gradually, film offers started pouring in.”

Cinema, Anant says, is like going on a road with a one-way ticket. “Once you get into this field, cinema consumes you. There is no way you can return. It is like riding a tiger all the time. Try getting off its back, and you can be attacked.”

In a still from the Kannada film Hamsa Geethe with Rekha Rao

In a still from the Kannada film Hamsa Geethe with Rekha Rao
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Second wind

About him sustaining in the industry for 50 years, the actor says, “It was not my efforts alone, but the love the audience gave me. They made my films a success. Equal credit goes to the directors, producers, and most importantly, the writers. They wrote specific roles for me and I am grateful to each one of them.”

After a while, Anant started getting bored with his roles. “By the time I was 40, I was questioning myself — what was I doing? Why was I repeating the success formula over and over again? Once again, I was in a dilemma, I did not want to repeat myself on screen. Art cinema, which offered me scope for experimentation, had limited reach those days. Even the remuneration was nominal. Ultimately, cinema is meant for entertainment. People come to watch your film, not to get patronised, but to get entertained.”

“Success and failure is not in anyone’s hand. A film you think nothing about, may become a blockbuster and one that you pinned all your hopes on, may go unnoticed. Also, when you are an actor, sometimes you are left with no choice, but to do the role you are offered as that is what people wish to see you as. It is also a question of money for the producer. So, in the end the numbers do count.”

That is when Anant started exploring comedy. His Ganeshana Maduve series with Vinaya Prasad is still remembered for the laughs they provide. “I also did a lot of dark comedy in films such as Udbhava, Yaarigu Helbedi where I explored negative characters with shades of humour.”

Anant Nag in a still Godi Banna Saadarana Maikattu

Anant Nag in a still Godi Banna Saadarana Maikattu
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Anant then took a break to venture into politics. After a short stint, he decided to return to films. “I was now in my 50s. As someone who ragged my seniors who still played the lead with significantly younger heroines, I was terrified of being bullied by my juniors. I decided I would not do lead roles and started to explore strong character roles. This attitude comes only from theatre, where you give your best even for a two-minute role on stage. Sometimes supporting roles are written better than leads.”

Despite this switch, the films that he was a part of went on to become major hits including Mungaru Male, Godi Banna Sadharana Maikattu, Kavaludaari and KGF Chapter 1. Because he remains a sought-after actor in his 70s, he is often compared to Amitabh Bachchan. This comparison, the actor says, is unfair on Amitabh Bachchan. “He is a legend and has done more work than me. He puts in the same passion for a three-hour film or a 15-second advertisement, which I am incapable of. He is a terrific brand and is from the Hindi film industry, which has a larger reach. However, comparing me to him is the people’s verdict, and I humbly accept this honour.”

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Christopher Nolan breaks down the best ways to watch a movie, ahead of ‘Oppenheimer’ release

It’s no secret that Christopher Nolan made “ Oppenheimer ” to be seen on the big screen. But not all big screens are created equal.

That’s part of the reason why Universal Pictures has made “Oppenheimer” tickets available early for over a thousand “premium large format” (or PLF) screens, with options including IMAX 70mm, 70mm, IMAX digital, 35mm, Dolby Cinema and more.

Knowing that even those words can get overwhelming and technical, Nolan went a step further: In an interview with The Associated Press, he offered a guide to his favorite formats, explaining why it matters and even where he likes to sit so that audiences don’t feel like they need a film school degree (or one in theoretical physics) before settling on a theater.

“You rarely get the chance to really talk to moviegoers directly about why you love a particular format and why if they can find an IMAX screen to see the film on that’s great,” Nolan said. “We put a lot of effort into shooting the film in a way that we can get it out on these large format screens. It really is just a great way of giving people an experience that they can’t possibly get in the home.”

In a film about about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who oversaw the development of first atomic bomb during World War II, this will be especially pivotal in viewing the Trinity Test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon. Nolan and his effects teams recreated the blast, with all its blinding brilliance.

“We knew that this had to be the showstopper,” Nolan said. “We’re able to do things with picture now that before we were really only able to do with sound in terms of an oversize impact for the audience—an almost physical sense of response to the film.”

“Oppenheimer,” starring Cillian Murphy, opens in theaters on July 21.


“Oppenheimer” was shot using some of the highest resolution film cameras that exist. Like “ Dunkirk ” and “ Tenet,” “Oppenheimer” was filmed entirely on large format film stock, meaning a combination of IMAX 65mm and Panavision 65mm (think David Lean/”Lawrence of Arabia”), that’s then projected in 70mm.

“The sharpness and the clarity and the depth of the image is unparalleled,” Nolan said. “The headline, for me, is by shooting on IMAX 70mm film, you’re really letting the screen disappear. You’re getting a feeling of 3D without the glasses. You’ve got a huge screen and you’re filling the peripheral vision of the audience. You’re immersing them in the world of the film.”

Nolan has been shooting with IMAX cameras since “The Dark Knight.” Audiences would regularly gasp at seeing its first shot projected in IMAX 70mm. Though it’s “just a helicopter shot” of some buildings in Chicago, it helps explain the ineffable power of the format.

On a technical level, the IMAX film resolution is almost 10 times more than a 35mm projector and each frame has some 18,000 pixels of resolution versus a home HD screen that has 1,920 pixels.

Director Christopher Nolan, center, and Cillian Murphy, right, on the set of ‘Oppenheimer’
| Photo Credit:
Melinda Sue Gordon


The 5mm difference goes back to when that extra space on the film had to be reserved for the soundtrack. With digital sound, that’s unnecessary and it is “purely a visual enhancement,” Nolan explained.


“We have to plan very carefully because by shooting an IMAX film, you capture a lot of information,” he said. “Your movie is going to translate very well to all the formats because you’re getting the ultimate amount of visual information. But there are different shapes to the screen — what we call aspect ratios. What you have to plan is how you then frame your imagery so that it can be presented in different theaters with equal success.”

Starting with “The Dark Knight,” they developed a system that they call “center punching the action” so that nothing is lost.

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema is also always aware of the “frame lines for the different theaters” when looking through the camera.

On the biggest presentations, IMAX 1.43:1 (the massive square screen) the screen essentially disappears for the audience. For other formats like 35mm, the top and the bottom get cropped.

But, Nolan said, “from a creative point of view, what we’ve found over the years is that there’s no compromise to composition.”


The IMAX cameras are just too loud for dialogue heavy scenes, but Nolan is optimistic about the new cameras being developed.


Some of “Oppenheimer” is presented in black and white for a very specific story reason.

“I knew that I had two timelines that we were running in the film,” Nolan said. “One is in color, and that’s Oppenheimer’s subjective experience. That’s the bulk of the film. Then the other is a black and white timeline. It’s a more objective view of his story from a different character’s point of view.”

Nolan’s desire for the black and white portions to be of equal image quality to the rest of the film led to the development of the first ever black and white IMAX film stock, which Kodak made and Fotokem developed.

“We shot a lot of our hair and makeup tests using black and white. And then we would go to the IMAX film projector at CityWalk and project it there,” he said. “I’ve just never seen anything like it. To see such a massive black and white film image? It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Christopher Nolan, right, and Emma Thomas accept the “NATO Spirit of the Industry Award” at the Big Screen Achievement Awards during CinemaCon

Christopher Nolan, right, and Emma Thomas accept the “NATO Spirit of the Industry Award” at the Big Screen Achievement Awards during CinemaCon
| Photo Credit:
Chris Pizzello


For Nolan, the “best possible experience” to view “Oppenheimer” in theaters is the IMAX 70mm film presentations. These are also among the rarest, currently set for 25 locations in North America including the AMC Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles, the AMC Lincoln Square in New York, the Cinemark Dallas, the Regal King of Prussia near Philadelphia and the AutoNation IMAX in Fort Lauderdale.

The prints span over 11 miles of film stock, weigh some 600 pounds and run through film projectors horizontally.

There will also be over one hundred 70mm prints (“a fabulous presentation,” Nolan said) sent to theaters around the world, with over 77 (and more to come) on sale in North America at major chains and many independent locations like the Music Box in Chicago and the AFI Silver in Washington D.C.

“The two formats are sort of different and I love them both,” he said.

The sequences projected in IMAX 70mm really “come to life” on those screens, and vice versa for the 70mm sequences on those specific projectors. In IMAX theaters, for example, things shot with IMAX film cameras will expand vertically to fill the entire screen.

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from the film ‘Oppenheimer,’ written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in a scene from the film ‘Oppenheimer,’ written and directed by Christopher Nolan
| Photo Credit:


The vast majority of moviegoers in North America will have easier access to digital presentations. These include IMAX digital, which can sometimes mean a laser projected image and other times involves a retro formatted screen, and what’s called “exhibitor PLF,” meaning large format screen and projection systems developed by individual theater chains (like Regal RPX, Cinemark XD and Cineplex UltraAVX). When in doubt, look for an “X” in the name.

But don’t dismay: It’ll still look great, according to Nolan, whose team has worked for six months to digitize the original film for other formats to ensure the best experience on every screen.

“This is the exciting thing about shooting an IMAX film: When you scan it for the digital format, you’re working with the absolute best possible image that you could acquire, and that translates wonderfully to the new projector formats like the laser projectors,” he said.

Nolan said the “IMAX impact” over the last 20 to 30 years has resulted in more theaters paying more attention to presentation, from projection to sound, which has been “great for filmmakers.”


Well, that comes down to personal preference but here’s where Nolan likes to sit.

“When I’m in a theater that’s Cinemascope ratio, I like to be right near the front, middle of the third row,” he said. “When I’m in a stadium, IMAX 1.43:1, then I actually like to be a little behind the center line right up at the middle. So, a little further back.”

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