This month, an international team of astro­nomers announced the discovery of the planet HD 131399Ab, which has three suns, a curious situation that’s the central conceit in the Chinese sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. A film based on the popular 2008 novel is scheduled to be released next year. Even more fanciful is Star Trek Beyond, the latest instalment in the film franchise, in which sentient beings and flying machines effortlessly zip across galaxies in seconds.

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The Chinese began writing sci-fi novels in the early 20th century, but stories that would be recognisable as science fiction today can be found in ancient Chinese texts. Among the earliest is the story about a leather and wood robot presented to the Zhou dynasty King Mu during the 10th century BC by the artisan Yan Shi. The robot sang, danced and even flirted like a real human being, and had human hair, teeth and entrails. It became inanimate when it was taken apart and reanimated when its parts were put back together.

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There were also stories of UFO sightings, such as the “floating boat” described by Jin-dynasty poet Zhang Hua (AD232-300) as hovering over an island off the coast. A man boarded the boat and after about 10 days he could see only vast, empty space. His voyage was even corroborated by a famous astrologist of the day, who observed an unidentified object moving towards the Cowherd Star, or Altair.