Nathaniel Isaacson

“Media and Messages: Blurred Visions of Nation and Science in “‘Death Ray on a Coral
Island’”

Abstract:

China’s post-Mao era heralded a decade of renewed vigor in the popular media,
through which the nation underwent a collective reassessment of China‟s relationship to the
modern world and its own past. In this context, archaeologist, historian and sf writer Tong
Enzheng’s (1935-1997) “Death Ray on a Coral Island” (Shanhudao shang de siguang, 1978),
was a sensation. The short story was adopted into a film (dir. Zhang Hongmei, 1980), saw
numerous incarnations as a pocket-comic, and was most recently as a cell-phone video game.

The young scientist Chen Tianhong is shot down over the Pacific Ocean as he
attempts to deliver his invention, an atomic battery, safely back to the motherland. He lands
on a coral island where he meets fellow countryman and scientist, Dr. Matthew, the
unknowing shill of a vague amalgamation of the Soviet Union and the US – The ASC. Dr.
Matthew is finishing work on a laser beam and needs only a power source – Chen‟s battery.
In the right hands the device is a laser beam; in the wrong hands, a death ray. Chen and Dr.
Matthew are endangered when the ASC tracks them down on the island in an attempt to
purloin their inventions and use them for global domination.
I critique this narrative as an expression of China’s unsteady relationship with the
world at large and its own past through its pondering of the possibility of “pure science” in the
shadow of the atomic bomb. At the same time, the story enacts a critique of the relationship
between global capital and scientific inquiry. Materially, I argue that the story’s mass-media
appeal is symptomatic of the cultural ferment of the 1980s. Finally, this analysis attempts to
address why it is that, despite its popularity and significance, “Death Ray on a Coral Island”
remains a rare example of Chinese sf cinema, rather than the progenitor of a vibrant tradition.


Bio:

Nathaniel Isaacson is an Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of
Foreign Languages and Literature at North Carolina State University. His dissertation,
“Colonial Modernities and Chinese Science Fiction,” is an interdisciplinary cultural study of
early 20th-century Chinese popular science writing and science fiction, and its relationship to
the colonial project and industrial modernity. This work traces the development of the genre
in China from its early history in the late Qing Dynasty through the May 4th Period (roughly
1904-1924). In order to promote scholarly exchange and general interest in Chinese science fiction, together with Li Guangyi (UCLA) and Wu Yan (Beijing Normal University), Nathaniel
helped co-found the World Chinese Science Fiction website (www.chinesescifi.org).
Nathaniel continues to work to create communities of academic exchange for the study of
global science fiction. Nathaniel’s current research picks up where the dissertation left off, tracing the history of Chinese science fiction through the 1930s and into the contemporary period, and examining the significance of trans-national Chinese science-fiction cinema. He has also published a translation of Lu Xun‟s “Lessons from the History of Science,” and translations of two short
stories – Xu Nianci’s “New Tales of Mr. Braggadocio,” and Han Song‟s “The Passenger and
the Creator” will be appearing in the Chinese translation journal Renditions in the coming
year. Other research interests include Chinese intellectual history, Chinese cinema, and the
avant-garde authors of the 1980s.