Tales of Futures Past
Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China
Stanford University Press 2014
Paola Iovene‘s new book is a beautiful exploration of visions of the future as they have shaped a range of texts, genres, and editorial practices in Chinese literature from the middle of the twentieth century through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Tales of Futures Past: Anticipation and the Ends of Literature in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2014) traces two different and related ideas of the future through children’s books, popular science, science fiction, poetry, fiction, and other kinds of text and practice: destination (defined in the book as “a condition of higher perfection, a time and place that is better than the present”), and anticipation (rendered as “the expectations that permeate life as it unfolds” and emergent in various ways throughout the book). The first three chapters focus on editorial and authorial strategies, and the last two chapters offer close readings of texts by Wang Meng and Ge Fei that themselves are concerned with literature and its uses. The chapter offers thoughtful reflections on science fiction in China and its relation to ideas of labor, embodied practices of composition and performance, literary translation as a mode of cultural exchange, the beginnings of an idea of “world literature” in modern China, the editorial strategies and modes of collaboration responsible for the emergence of Chinese avant-garde fiction, the surprising links between Tang poetry and contemporary fiction in China, the importance of fog or haze as a literary medium of toxicity, and much else. It’s a wonderfully provocative book, both for specialists of Chinese literary studies and for non-specialist readers looking for a glimpse into some wonderfully inventive works of modern Chinese literature that haven’t received much critical attention in English-language scholarship.