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Chinese sci-fi fans over the moon at Chengdu Worldcon
People visit Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, the main venue for the 81st World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan province, Oct 18, 2023. The 81st WorldCon opened on Wednesday. [Photo/Xinhua]
Chinese sci-fi fans over the moon at Chengdu Worldcon
By Rebecca BAILEY
Chengdu, China (AFP) Oct 20, 2023

In a sleek silver building designed to look like an expanding nebula, thousands of delighted Chinese science fiction fans gathered this week for a massive international convention.

The World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, globally the oldest and most influential sci-fi event, has never been held in China before.

The convention's venue is the striking Chengdu Science Fiction Museum -- designed by the renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, built in just one year and opened for Worldcon.

On Friday its cavernous atrium was filled with a buzz of excited voices.

"To be attending a science fiction convention is one of the happiest occasions of my entire life," said a young woman who gave her name as Monet.

The 21-year-old wore a costume inspired by the hit film "Wandering Earth 2", though with some customisations -- a plethora of badges and ribbons, and furry ears that swivelled to match her head movements.

A red armband showed she was a member of an underground "Wandering Earth" fan group based in Chengdu, she explained.

"I didn't expect to meet so many friends here, who also like science fiction," she said, visibly moved.

"It's really very precious. It is hard to share my interests with people who don't understand."

"I think science fiction should be a way of life," Icing, a 21-year-old sporting a voluptuous blonde wig and amber contact lenses, told AFP.

"For example, me wearing this outfit today... I think we should incorporate sci-fi, incorporate fantasy into our own lives. We shouldn't ever lose our childlike innocence," he said.

Around him, groups of tracksuited schoolchildren chattered happily as they were shepherded through the entrance hall, dominated by a massive statue of a beloved robot dog from "Wandering Earth 2".

"I don't think I've ever seen such a cool place before," Icing added, looking around with wide eyes.

- Huge scale -

Holding the event in China was not without controversy, with a petition that the hosting rights be revoked over allegations of human rights abuses in northwestern Xinjiang region circulating beforehand.

This Worldcon also looks very different compared to past ones in other global cities, which historically are run by volunteers with costs covered by members.

Attendees on Friday seemed mostly Chinese, with only a small proportion of foreigners appearing to have made the trip.

Bruce MacDermott, whose first Worldcon experience was in 1968, said the scale and feel was unlike anything he'd seen before.

"I don't think that we'll ever see -- unless they come back to China -- a convention that's run as thoroughly as this one is," the 74-year-old said.

That shift towards officialisation was another factor some fans had expressed unease with.

"If they put on a good convention, I don't care," said MacDermott.

"What's important is the experience that people have."

- 'Big Liu' -

Global interest in Chinese science fiction has spiked in recent years, after Liu Cixin's "Three-Body" series became an international phenomenon.

Liu was the first Asian author to win best novel at Worldcon's Hugo Awards, described as the "Nobel Prize of science fiction".

The "Wandering Earth" films are also based on a short story by Liu.

Clutching a pile of books, 39-year-old Chen Tingting told AFP she had given the "Three-Body" series to a friend going through a difficult time.

"There was a period when I was quite unhappy, but after I read the books, I came to think the universe is really so vast, humankind is so insignificant in comparison," she explained.

On Friday afternoon, the queue for Liu's book signings snaked around the museum's curves for hundreds of metres, with some fans proudly telling AFP they had waited four hours.

Yang Maoxu came to Worldcon dressed in a Star Wars costume complete with helmet and two lightsabres, but he too said Liu was his favourite.

"I came across Big Liu's work quite late, and really regretted not finding it sooner," he said.

"It felt like I'd known him all along."

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