Jorah Kai chats with Hugo and Nebula Winners Robert J. Sawyer & Liu Cixin @ Chengdu Worldcon

Chengdu – It’s 9:57 a.m., Wednesday, October 18, 2023. A palpable sense of anticipation electrifies the bustling event hall, crowded with journalists from China and around the world. As the clock nears 10 a.m., every eye turns toward the entrance. They await the arrival of the convention’s marquee guests: China’s Liu Cixin, the man who propelled Chinese science fiction onto the global stage, and Robert J. Sawyer from Canada—a literary luminary and the only Canadian to have won the Hugo, Robert A. Heinlein, and Nebula awards. As they enter, the hall falls silent. Sawyer guides Liu to his seat.

Liu gazes skyward, perhaps steeling himself for the inevitable barrage of questions—he is a man who typically shuns interviews, preferring to let his work speak for him. Sawyer, all smiles, contemplates removing his jacket. As Liu adjusts his earpiece, Sawyer captures a snapshot of the journalists who are filming him—a playful meta-moment.

The clock strikes 10. The room goes quiet as Sawyer begins to speak. Though a microphone amplifies his voice, his words truly resonate. “It’s said of China that you live in a peaceful country in a world that is not at peace. Here, people from all over the world unite, believing there will be a future. This World Science Fiction Convention sends a positive message to the world.”

Robert J. Sawyer discusses the future of science fiction and China’s ascendency at the Worldcon opening press conference alongside Liu Cixin. (Photo/Deng Yan)

His words linger, imbued with the gravitas of the moment. This is no ordinary science fiction convention—it’s a melting pot of ideas, a crucible of future possibilities. Yet, as Sawyer emphasizes, it’s also a testament to the transcendent power of art to overcome political and cultural barriers.

“The most important thing that happened to science fiction is this man right here,” Sawyer continues, referring to Liu Cixin. “When Ken Liu translated him, and Tor published him, it opened the eyes of Western readers. Many Western readers, especially Americans, are often opposed to translated literature. This man was a breakthrough, and now, more and more Chinese science fiction writers and others worldwide are finally gaining a voice in English. And that’s great. We’re learning new techniques, new tools, and new perspectives.”

Robert J. Sawyer and other guests at the opening ceremony for the 81st World Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu on October 18, 2023. (Photo/Deng Yan)

“I think China has done in 40-50 years what took the West 200 years. China’s growth is exponential, while the West is stagnant. The U.S. has recently often defunded universities, science, and education, but China invests heavily in them.” He sees the U.S. future as “a coin flip” depending on the next election—either anti-science or pro-science. “But in China, the government believes the country’s future is rooted in scientific and technological advancement. Therefore, the future for science fiction is incredibly bright with China’s rapid progress.”

This keen observation highlights the seismic shifts in the global landscape. China is not merely catching up; it’s setting the pace, a reality Sawyer finds invigorating.

Sawyer emphasizes the crucial role of science fiction in informing world leaders. “Science fiction is vital because, as futurist Alvin Toffler said in 1970, it’s ‘the only preventive medicine for future shock.’ While the West has forgotten this, it’s well-understood in China.”

Sawyer also lists imminent challenges. “Climate change is the number one existential threat. Other threats like AI and aliens are secondary. Countries are burning, and it’s urgent.” He sees the science fiction author’s position as an early warning system for society as they are free to “explore both the pros and cons of future technology,” clearly looking at first, second, and third orders and beyond.

I had a follow-up deep dive chat with Robert J Sawyer later that day, where we discussed AI, the lineage of Sci-Fi, some of the implications of rapid futurism, and his next work – he was so gracious to be late for his dinner and opening Worldcon 2023 ceremonies so we got a bit rushed at the end. Check that video below v

Hopeful for a fantastic week for this Chengdu, China Worldcon, he proclaimed, “This is the most elaborate, biggest World Science Fiction Convention ever. I’m so thrilled; I’m honored to share the stage with my friend Mr. Liu, but I’m also honored and thrilled that of all the 81 World Science Fiction Conventions, we are lucky enough to be at the biggest and best, most elaborate, most promoted, most international World Science Fiction Convention ever. This venue across the lake is beautiful and spectacular. Two years ago, I knew it would be a good convention; I hoped it would be great. It has exceeded any hope I might have had and is spectacular. This is the best World Science Fiction Convention ever.”

It was great to catch up with him again in his suite and record a second interview, link above. It was about half an hour but could have been hours – we barely scratched the surface, but dinner called, and then his opening ceremony duties were waiting. He’s a wonderful guy and a great new friend. The GoChengdu x iChongqing vlog was a real blast too. Emily as the ancient Chinese moon goddess Chang’E with me as Starlord, what a hoot. Too funny.

It is really inspirational, and I am excited to share my new novel with you all soon. You can find Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, ‘The Downloaded,’ here:

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