MasterClass Report | “Surviving as the Last Human”
Many science fiction writers have different views on how best to define science fiction, but for Tang Fei her definition is that “science fiction is a method of thought”.
In a MasterClass presented at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, science fiction author Tang Fei was invited to share her knowledge and understanding of science fiction. She has won several literary awards, such as the Shanghai Literature Award, Chinese Readers’ Choice Awards (Gravity Awards), and silver medal of the Speculative Fiction in Translation: Most Popular Short Story. Apart from literature, she has also been involved in different art forms such as installation and photography. In her presentation, Tang Fei shared with readers how to write sci-fi creatively, focusing on the concept of “Surviving as the Last Human” in an apocalyptic survival scenario.
Survival game for the last nine people
“Science fiction is a way of thinking that goes through the extreme situations and the construction of different worlds. The creative means of defamiliarisation takes us out of our routines and stereotypes, as well as our biases. Then we change our perspective and how we look at problems to re-examine the life we have now.”
To test the idea that science fiction is “a method of thought”, Tang Fei led a thought experiment, creating a post-apocalyptic story through science fiction extrapolation. In fact, many science fiction fans believe that the process of reading science fiction is very similar to experimentation, except that in this experiment we are not operating on a material level, but rather on a collision of ideas, concepts and values.
The setting for this thought experiment was that the end of days were upon us and only nine people were left in the human race. These nine people had different professions, such as rocket engineer, biologist, farmer, athlete, poet, computer engineer, politician and secretary. As food supplies become increasingly scarce, they have to vote on who gets to stay alive. Each character has to fight to stay alive until the end by elaborating on the value that their professional skills can bring to the survival of humanity. “This game is really looking at your outlook on life, your values, what kind of people you think deserve to live, and what kind of people can help more people live,” Tang Fei said.
Surviving as the Last Human
Tang Fei took the thought experiment to another level when she added a cleaner to the group, and decided to let this cleaner live on as the last human being. In terms of storytelling she suggested four possibilities that could keep the cleaner alive, with the first being “political correctness”, but in such an apocalyptic situation she said: “This is an unconvincing one. It is also against human nature, a slogan choice.”
The second was the cleaner has superpowers, but she thinks: “A small potato who has superpowers becoming a hero is a pleasing formula. Everyone is happy when they read it, especially when we put ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. It’s simple, easy and fast, but this is not science fiction and extrapolation.”
The third possibility is that this cleaner has their own special hobbies and hidden skills that add to their value and thus help people to solve their problems, but this is also not part of the science fiction extrapolation.
The fourth possibility was that the cleaner cleverly uses their occupational skills to turn a danger into a treasure. For example, they can keenly identify some special material material and turn it into a treasure. They can create some new value out of something that seems completely useless to everyone. “In such a strange situation, they suddenly have a new role to play, they have a new value, and it can make us rethink the value of this person”, Tang Fei said, which she added contains, for her, the meaning of science fiction.
In the past people may have had some misconceptions about science fiction, thinking, “It’s a genre of literature that is strongly related to science and popularizes knowledge, or thinking of it as techno-rhapsodic and a utopian kind of writing.” In response to these misconceptions, Tang Fei said: “I think science fiction is actually a way of thinking and a game. All games help us to exercise. Just like you would go running to exercise your muscles, our mind also needs to keep exercising, practicing thinking constantly and rethinking our reality. Otherwise, we could easily become bound by a pre-existing and fixed impression.”