Elon Should Read 1930s Chinese Sci-Fi
To get us to Mars (narratively)
Hello! This is my first essay on Lit Visions. The idea was conceived in the Lighting round of my podcast with Jordan Castro, published last week.
Before we dive in, here are the core takeaways:
Cat Country is a novel about an astronaut who lands on Mars
He is surrounded by ‘Cat People’, a collapsing civilisation
The work is a cutting metaphor for 1930s communist China
It highlights the importance of storytelling and sustainable worldbuilding on Mars - for Elon Musk and SpaceX
For Twitter, it’s a cautionary tale of frenzied behaviour leading to destruction
When billionaires consume fiction, there are cultural consequences
Books like Cat Country are testing grounds for alternative realities
Now onto the essay.
Some ideas take a full pregnancy. Others are born off-the-cuff - like the one for this piece.
Towards the end of a conversation with author Jordan Castro, he asked me to name a profound novel. I replied with Cat Country and mused:
Elon Musk should probably read it.
This was a flippant comment but after some dwelling, I feel there’s something there.
What is Cat Country?
Cat Country is a satirical novel by Lao She and translated by William A. Lyell. Published in 1933, it follows a Chinese astronaut (called Mr. Earth) who crash-lands on Mars, and finds himself in a country populated by ‘Cat People’ - which are human-like cat creatures. As the man involves himself in cat-life, he realises that the civilisation is in bleak decline and on the verge of collapse.
Even more intriguing, Cat Country is a metaphor for communist China, of which Lao She is highly critical.
I first discovered the book when curating the second issue of News2Novel - my weekly newsletter that recommends novels based on current affairs. The news event that inspired the suggestion was the Chinese Communist Party’s campaign against big tech companies to usher in tighter regulation and more government control.
Get novel suggestions based on weekly news
Why should Elon care?
There are a few reasons why this 1930s novel could inspire new thinking for Elon Musk and his various companies. Let’s start with his opus venture, SpaceX, founded to make humanity a multiplanetary species and successfully colonize Mars.
Building (bad) worlds
Elon has famously said that he would like to die on Mars. He believes deep in his bones that Earth needs a backup plan in case something catastrophic were to happen. Regardless of whether or not you share his worldview, the man’s vision is galactic, in literally all senses.
But to paraphrase Peter Parker’s uncle, with great vision comes great responsibility. Elon has to to build the right teams and technologies; raise capital; secure governmental support; mitigate for countless risks; and get everyone bought into the idea (not just sci-fi enthusiasts).
Storytelling is central to all these initiatives, as is worldbuilding - the process of constructing fictional universes. Except that for Elon, the fiction must manifest.
With this is mind, let’s consider Cat Country from a worldbuilding lens:
Cat Country is in a constant state of chaos
It’s capital is (unimaginatively) called Cat City
The language, Felinese, is crude and primitive
‘Freedom’ in Felinese means “taking advantage of others; non-cooperation and creating disturbances”
Houses in Cat City are made of mud and consist of “four walls surrounding a foul smell”
Cat children are not educated: they graduate on the first day of school and massacre their teachers
Historians pawn off the country’s ancient treasures for pennies
Philosophers ramble in foreign sounding words which they don’t even understand (like hwala-fuszji and gulu-baiji), just to sound intelligent
A drug and food staple (the ‘reverie leaf’, an opium analog) underpins the entire economy
Despite all their shortfalls, Cat People believe they’re the best Martian civilisation
And the list goes painfully on.
Cat Country’s problems sound unimaginable and yet we can imagine them for they are jacked up versions of the issues we see in our own world. I find it fascinating that Lao She set a story on a planet 97 million kilometres away just to make a point about life on Earth. It’s perhaps another example of how extreme metaphors, ideas and even physical distances are required to shock people out of their apathetic realities and shift perspective. Though apparently at the time of publishing in 1930s China, the book was perceived as merely stating common knowledge and considered a failure.
Whilst not necessarily Lao She’s intention, Cat Country can be deemed a cautionary tale for the future of life on Mars. Now I know space colonization is a while away and losing sleep over worldbuilding problems may feel premature. But to delay ‘story’, in favour of ‘building’ (i.e. solving technical problems) is a trap that most entrepreneurs fall into.
Crafting the Martian narrative can elevate all stages of the operation, from uniting stakeholders around a resonant vision to identifying (costly) settlement challenges ahead of time. Not to mention that when engineering is done in the service of narrative (and not the other way around), the resulting solutions are more holistic, empathetic and true.
I believe that fictional works like Cat Country can be leveraged as testing grounds for important ideas and alternative realities. They can help us learn from mistakes well ahead of time, in safe, low-stake environments. So, in the context of Mars, Cat Country is a kind of dystopian narrative prototype. A prototype that simulates complete civilisational collapse due to mass institutional failure, broken incentive systems, a collective refusal to acknowledge problems, poor communication infrastructure and spiritual bankruptcy.
As with any experiment, it’s not enough to just passively consume the prototype. It has to be brought home, synthesised and turned to newfound insight. All of which takes immense creative leadership…
Mars needs a Creative Director
Two innovators who have spoken powerfully about the Mars project are Eugene Angelo (Creative Director of ANGELO) and Reggie James (CEO of Eternal). As per them, the red planet is not a physical destination but a point of inspiration; a cultural vector that will shake the human race out of ennui and open the creative floodgates. They believe that the problems we’ll have to solve in order to physically get to Mars (and thrive) will also help us negotiate the issues plaguing us on earth, e.g. growing food sustainably and designing inclusive power systems.
One significant point they raise is the current lack of visions for Mars. There seems to be just one, belonging to the eponymous subject of this essay, Elon, who doesn’t paint the most imaginative of pictures. But even if he did, it is still morally irresponsible to leave such a gargantuan and innately communal undertaking in the hands of one man.
Especially one who has a proclivity for chaos - if his recent activities on Twitter are anything to go by.
Twitter is a country of cats
There’s already a lot of noise surrounding Elon’s conduct on Twitter since he acquired the company and I’m not compelled to add to it. Though I do feel it channels a similar wildness to that which propelled Cat Country into pandemonium.
Now I don’t think that chaos is always a negative phenomenon. Unannounced disruption is often needed to jolt the status quo and allow higher possibilities to surface - just how Joseph Schumpeter outlined in his theory of creative destruction. So maybe from some future perch, we will look back approvingly at Elon’s handling of the bird app, having deemed his actions as necessary.
But bedlam for the sake of bedlam is dangerous, distracting and just plain embarrassing, as we’ve seen in fictional worlds like Cat Country and in our own reality. If Elon does read the novel, he’d be wise to meditate on which inner strings it strums and the (dis)harmony of the resulting sound.
Fiction and Billionaires
That last image is surreal: Elon Musk sitting in a SpaceX boardroom late at night, sipping double espresso and reading fiction. It’s dizzying to think that when billionaires consume a certain book or culture, it could have tangible consequences for us all.
In fact, society loves to deconstruct the success of visionaries and point to their creative inspirations. Take Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson or The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: each novel apparently influenced the thinking of Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) and Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), respectively; whose thinking shaped the world that you and I live in today.
This almost makes me think we have a vested interest in the works that billionaires are consuming. Here’s a dystopian thought (or even utopian for that matter): a ‘taste council’ that is responsible for the cultural nourishment of the Elons of this world, to ensure more palatable futures for us all… If nothing else, it would make for an interesting short story.
More seriously though, it highlights how we cannot place blind faith in the technology elite to get it right, especially with course-altering missions like space colonization. As Eugene and Reggie said, we need more than one vision for Mars; which I feel should also include possibilities where we don’t go, opting instead to stay on Earth and save it.
Now is the time for mapping a breadth of potentialities, before going deep on any individual one. This means drawing from a spectrum of views and novels like Cat Country can help.
Dystopia’s raison d'être
Communist China was the locus of Lao She’s message, but with a modern lens and a pinch of artistic license, his work also shows us how today’s social, economic and environmental failures could easily reincarnate as future disasters on Mars.
Dystopian fiction has a reputation for dampening optimism and negatively skewing attitudes towards futuristic technologies. But it does serve an important purpose: to show what might happen if we get things wrong, in a way that we don’t forget. The collective memory is fickle, so any work that helps us retain crucial lessons should be given due consideration.
I also feel that dystopian fear shares a membrane with utopian excitement and both states are of equal importance, in the context of futurist thinking. A healthy dose of dread ensures we work to avoid troubling situations and exhilaration propels us to realise desired realities.
Cat Country largely channels dystopian energy but it’s setup is deceptively complex. Lao She is critical of China but, at the same time, his protagonist is a proud Chinese astronaut who comes from a country affluent enough to send a man to Mars. The purpose of his trip is anthropological observation, not a human exodus mission because earth is dying. So there are green shoots emerging from the barrenness, which we would do well to nurture after finishing the book.
Elon is a servant
To come full circle, I stand by my response to Jordan Castro: Elon should probably read Cat Country. For worldbuilding inspiration, perspective on anarchy and good old-fashioned pleasure, which needs no further justification.
But given the magnanimity of his plans, we cannot bank on his interpretation alone. The future is just too big to be outsourced to Elon Musk. We all need to become stakeholders in tomorrow and tales like Cat Country make for prescient investments.
So whilst the SpaceX boss is the current face of Martian endeavour, he is also a servant. A servant of progress. And progress needs more than the dreams of one man and one book. Progress needs all of us.
"Despite all their shortfalls, Cat People believe they’re the best Martian civilisation" Why does this sound so much like us on this planet already?
Loved this refreshing take on the importance of fiction in world-building. Really liked the idea of a 'taste council'. Looking forward to more essays on similar themes!