As we have grappled with COVID-19 over the past year, for many people the world over the arrival of spring anywhere has held hopes of the worst being over and for new beginnings.
It was in this vein that Future Affairs Administration, a sci-fi promotional company in Beijing, came up with the theme "Spring in Universe" for this year's Science Fiction New Year Gala, which has run during the most important Chinese festival for six consecutive years, says its founder Ji Shaoting. In it, writers from home and abroad create short sci-fi stories on the themes that were put out online during the festival.
"Due to the pandemic, many people spent the past year in isolation, unable to meet families and friends as usual," Ji says. "Connections among people were disturbed. So we all hope the advent of spring will bring new power and new hope so people can reconnect.
"Around the universe, starlight connects."
Over the past five years more than 60 sci-fi writers from eight countries and regions have published more than 90 short stories that have been viewed more than 100 million times.
Among those at this year's Future Affairs Administration gala were writers from Australia, Japan, Nigeria, South Korea and the United States "to create more connections on the planet so that people living in different continents can pass blessings and love on during this special period", Ji says.
This year 13 writers from four continents used their stories to represent their understanding of spring and Spring Festival combining their own cultures and experience.
The Nigerian writer Innocent Chizaram Ilo associated Chinese Spring Festival with Iri Ji, or the New Yam Festival, an important festival for Igbo people. Iri Ji, falling sometime in August, is celebrated to mark the end of the harvest season. On Iri Ji, Igbo people thank the goddess of the Earth Ani for a bountiful harvest and employ her to make the fields flourish again, Ilo says.
It is a time full of joy when people celebrate the festival by eating food consisting of yam, and with dancing and music. As a result, Ilo set his story of finding happiness during Iri Ji, connecting the Spring Festival with happiness and family.
The hero in the story is a boy named Izu who goes through a very difficult time after his father dies in an accident and his mother struggles to pay the rent. Feeling depressed, he steals the few savings his mother has to buy both of them a happiness that is fleeting. At the end of the story, with his mother's help, the boy rediscovers happiness on Iri Ji.
"The idea of happiness is interesting," Ilo says. "What it means to people, how people attain it, what people give up to attain it. …There is no one-track path to finding happiness. As Izu's mother points out, what we want to make us happy may have always been inside us. We just have to seek it."
In the story Somewhere It's About to Be Spring by the Australian writer Samantha Murray, after human passengers on a spaceship die in an accident, the debilitated craft continues to drift in space.
At first the spaceship, equipped with advanced artificial intelligence, is partially sentient, but gradually all the robots, including the major computing system Lacuna, are transformed into new creatures after being infiltrated with a dusty life form from a wandering rogue planet. Subsequently they learn to love.
By "love", Murray says she means "probably a mixture of both a concrete and an abstract thing".
"Love can be formed in the spaces between things; we have to leave room for it.
"The broken parts of Lacuna's computing systems leave room for something else to grow after iterations upon iterations and many thousands of years. It is the coming together of two different things－Lacuna's neural network and the memories in her data storage, and the dust from the orphan planet, that create something new in the universe," she says.
"Lacuna's love is shaped by her past and her memories of her crew" after "becoming this new creature enables Lacuna to feel something she eventually recognizes as love".
Murray says that in thinking of the theme "Spring in the Universe", it occurred to her that before spring comes winter, when times are hard, cold and difficult, just like the times people all sometimes experience.
"So it made sense to me to look through a science-fiction lens at a lonely spaceship that was in the middle of its own long winter－low on power, damaged, her crew gone, all alone, drifting through space."
Like Lacuna, Murray also learned about Spring Festival through some Chinese friends and through reading.
"Spring Festival has strong ideas of reunion and family coming together, celebration and hope, which I feel is important and wonderful," Murray says.
"Then I wanted to look at what might happen as the spaceship slowly evolved and found a new purpose and life, because newness and growth are at the heart of spring. I also wanted to incorporate ideas of reunion, and to have my spaceship at the end reuniting with her evolved family who had come back to share their tales and adventures."
Stories by non-Chinese writers can be a mirror or another pair of eyes that provide another dimension for us to better understand ourselves, Ji says.
"They naturally associate Spring Festival with family and their own traditional festivals."
As non-Chinese writers talk about love, reunion and family, domestic writers focused more on social phenomena in China. Han Song focused on the problems with China's countrywide toilet renovations, Luo Lingzuo on the problem of aging, Zhou Wen on over-dependence on apps, and Su Wanwen on star-chasing.
Su has been observing star-chasing for her fiction creation.
"I noticed that there are female fans older than 50 among the fans. They have decent jobs, their children have grown up, but they had little to communicate with their husbands. So chasing stars not only allows them to release their emotions, but also brings new friends."
This year's gala got her thinking of rejuvenation, she says.
"By chasing stars, these middle-aged starstrucks' need for love revives inside their hearts, which I think is related to the theme," Su says, explaining her inspiration for the story Zhuque in Silver.
It tells of the life of a middle-aged woman and the change brought about by chasing stars.
"It's a topic rarely seen in science fiction, but in reality, either star-chasing or women's mental needs is talked about a lot in China, so I think it's a good topic to write about."
In addition to text, this year's Science Fiction New Year Gala included the vocal form of podcasts, which featured writers who took part in the past five galas, and Future Affairs Administration editors who talked about stories behind the scenes. Guests on the podcasts read stories in their dialects or discussed food and customs in their hometowns.
On Feb 10, two days before Spring Festival, the Tianwen 1 robotic probe entered Martian orbit, becoming the first Chinese spacecraft to reach Mars. The previous day Ji and a researcher at Beijing Planetarium, Zhu Jin, talked on air about human exploration of outer space.
On the social media service Weibo, Science Fiction New Year Gala as a topic has been viewed 40 million times more than last year. Stickers of little green men were also popular on WeChat, being downloaded more than 68,000 times. The sci-fi gala as a column has also been run on an online training platform targeted at primary and middle school students.
"China's sci-fi fans are generally young, and now more younger people read sci-fi, which gives more hope to Chinese science fiction," Ji says.
As China's science and technology advances, people start seeing sci-fi elements in their daily life such as the landing of the Martian probe, so it is natural that sci-fi writers add more local Chinese elements in their stories, Ji says.
That is also why a lot of writers in this year's sci-fi gala chose to set their stories in outer space, she says.