But for the individuals working within the style, the sudden crush of consideration and esteem has been vertiginous. “None of us had the goal of taking over the world,” says Emily Jin, a translator and protégé of Ken Liu who has labored intently with Chen. “We’re just a bunch of nerds having fun together.” In China, the place speedy technological change retains transfiguring the world past recognition, “one of the most important qualities in a writer is sensitivity—the ability to capture the strangeness in everyday life,” Chen says. And it may be laborious to take care of that sensitivity if you’re squinting below the spotlights.
Chen turns 40 this yr, however at first look—lithe and swish, sporting candy-coloured Adidas high-tops—he may simply go as a person in his twenties. He is cerebral, wry, and soft-spoken. Chen lives in Shanghai however got here to Beijing for 2 weeks in October, the place I meet him at a café. He switches seamlessly between languages (English and Mandarin), dialects (Teochew and Cantonese), and names (Chen Qiufan and Stanley Chan). He strikes with ease between dialog matters, from autonomous terrorism to his journey to Burning Man, and halfway via our dialogue of Taoist philosophy, he excuses himself to take a fast name from his funding adviser. He additionally reads voraciously—citing Aldous Huxley, the Chinese novelist Lao She, and a 10,000-word educational paper on asteroid mining.
When I see him subsequent, he’s standing on a neon-lit stage within the banquet corridor of the Grand Millennium Hotel, a slab of glass and metal in Beijing’s central enterprise district, giving a speech titled “Mind Reset and Embracing the Unknown: The Way of Science Fiction” to an viewers of suited-up professionals. The Financial Times organized the convention, inviting a lineup of modern-day oracles—the CEO of a well being care startup, a professor of economics, a machine-learning skilled, and Chen—to prognosticate concerning the close to future. To gown up for the event, Chen placed on a blazer however stored the high-tops.
His go to to Beijing in October was full of comparable engagements. Tencent, the tech monolith behind China’s tremendous app WeChat, had invited Chen—once more, a literature main—to foretell developments in genetic engineering alongside a panel of world-class biophysicists, as a result of he as soon as wrote a narrative about genetically modified Neo Rats. Kai-Fu Lee summoned him to the glassy places of work of his firm, Sinovation Ventures, to affix a panel on AI-human cooperation within the artistic arts and to reveal the algorithm that writes fiction like Chen.
It isn’t any shock that Lee tapped Chen to take part within the panel. The two are collaborating on a e book, AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future, to be revealed this fall. Pairing Chen’s speculative fiction with Lee’s real-life technical perspective, the e book explores how synthetic intelligence will remodel humankind and the worldwide order within the subsequent 20 years, in areas starting from contactless courting to pure language processing to job displacement. “Computer scientists and science fiction writers don’t speak the same language. If I describe how speech recognition works, it’ll go right over people’s heads,” Lee tells me in a glass-walled convention room referred to as Back to the Future (all of the rooms at Sinovation are named after science fiction movies: Total Recall, Cloud Atlas, Star Trek). “I needed a writing partner who understands the technology but can also tell a good story.”
“I tend toward darker endings, and Kai-Fu toward the positive,” Chen says. “He thinks of the narrative as a step-by-step process, like a manual, and I prefer to preserve a story’s ambiguity.”
Given on a regular basis he spent at tech firms, Chen is each insider and outsider in an surroundings like Lee’s; he’s fluent within the language of information and metrics and KPIs. But it’s not simply that he’s at dwelling in tech. I’ve observed that in any new surroundings, Chen is observant and open-minded, cautious to soak up its guidelines and rituals earlier than synthesizing them as his personal. Zipping from one engagement to the subsequent, I watched him make a straight-laced professor really feel relaxed, appeal a hippie Mongolian shaman over lunch, then pen an op-ed for a state-run newspaper at evening.