An intimate apocalypse

Xiuzai’s Summer (秀哉的夏天) by Ge Shuyi (哥舒意).


Xiuzai’s Summer
《秀哉的夏天》
Ge Shuyi (哥舒意)
223 pages
2010.2

As the title suggests, Xiuzai’s Summer draws inspiration from the Takeshi Kitano film Kikujiro (菊次郎の夏), in that it features a man who takes a young boy under his wing when the boy’s mother is missing. The man is Xiuzai, an IT programmer and gamer who is content with his solitary routine. The young boy is Xiao Shu, who crashes into his life when his mom (Xiuzai’s former lover) leaves him on the doorstep and jets off to Japan for a week. The event that keeps them together for the summer is a catastrophe of global proportions: on June 17, 2018, massive earthquakes rock Shanghai and much of the rest of the world and leave Xiuzai and Xiao Shu among the handful of people left alive in the city.

Over the course of the next few days, as frequent aftershocks slowly bring down everything that’s still upright, Xiuzai and Xiao Shu join the survivors in a makeshift encampment at People’s Square, from which they make risky forays into the surrounding area in search of food and supplies. The destruction has been total. Across the river, Pudong District has vanished into the sea, and on their side, they find few people left alive in the rubble that once belonged to densely-packed high-rises.

In a bloody attempt to save a woman trapped beneath a beam, Xiuzai injures himself and ends up in a feverish delirium. The small group of survivors is ill-equipped to handle the trauma of such an enormous disaster, and its numbers dwindle daily. By the time Xiuzai comes to his senses, he and Xiao Shu are all alone.

The aftershocks have subsided, and the supplies their former companions managed to accumulate relieve them of the chore of foraging among the ruins, so all Xiuzai has to do is amuse the boy and keep his mind off his mother — which he eventually does, once he overcomes the urge to drink himself into oblivion with looted high-end liquor while watching porn on a scavenged laptop. They bond, slowly and haltingly, over the middle section of the book, which is set on a beach where the Bund used to be and feels like a tale of castaways on a desert island.

For much of the time, Xiuzai’s Summer is an idyllic apocalypse, punctuated with scenes of horrific brutality — the aforementioned botched rescue attempt, a subterranean crawl, and an ending that’s crushing in more ways than one. The boy’s a little too precocious for his age, and the city far too clean for all of the destruction that’s occurred, but both of these elements work well within the fairy-tale-like atmosphere that makes up most of the novel.

Ge Shuyi has said that he conceived of the novel after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, and it shows: some of the more surrealistic descriptions reminded me of first-hand reports from that disaster, such as Li Ximin’s hour-by-hour account of the three days and nights he spent buried in the rubble of the Wenchuan earthquake.

Prior to Xiuzai’s Summer, Ge wrote Devil Sonata (恶魔奏鸣曲, 2006) and The Nocturnal Violinist and La flûte de Jésus (夜之琴女与耶稣之笛 , 2008), the first two installments in a “music trilogy” of modern fantasy.

Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others

Chinese SF writers on dystopias: AGE OF PROSPERITY (盛世) by John Koon-chung Chan (陈冠中), MY HOMELAND DOES NOT DREAM (我的祖国不做梦) and 2066: RED STAR OVER AMERICA by Han Song (韩松), and CITY OF SILENCE (寂静之城) by Ma Boyong (马伯庸).

THL091207shengshi
Age of Prosperity
《盛世》
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages
2009

In a prosperous China where nearly everyone is happy, a few individuals attempt to track down why an entire month seems to have been wiped from history.

That’s the premise of Age of Prosperity (盛世, 2009), a political fantasy novel by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中). Chan is known for his stories and essays about cities, and his fascination with urban landscape, people, and power structures. Previous fiction includes the Hong Kong Trilogy (香港三部曲), and his extensive writing about Beijing culture includes the essay “Bohemian Beijing,” which approaches life in the city through residents who are situated on the margins.* His new novel, which imagines a China in which the government has succeeded in building a “harmonious society,” displays a similar eye for detail presented in a reportorial style.

Age of Prosperity is a fascinating book that succeeds on a number of levels but fails in one fatal way. The novel presents a convincing depiction of Beijing’s intellectual circles through his protagonist, Chen (a mirror-universe version of the author), and the meandering plot gives the author the opportunity to explore aspects of contemporary Chinese society. References to contemporary scandals such as milk additives, mass demonstrations, brick kiln slaves, product quality concerns, and underground religious movements give the story the feel of a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller at times. Chen, who doesn’t realize at first that a month has gone missing, is drawn into the search by an old colleague who’s noticed the gap and a former flame who feels vaguely uneasy. This uneasiness is all the more remarkable because of the happiness of the public as a whole: two years before, the world slipped into an economic crisis, yet China managed to reach new heights of prosperity and stability.

Eventually the protagonists are able to seek answers through a point-blank interrogation of a high-level official who was in on the plan. What he tells them is both a darkly comic echo of “red menace” fears from 1950s America and a bleak revelation that brings new meaning to the author’s frequent references to the tragedies of the last sixty years – the anti-rightist movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and more recently, the “strike hard” campaign in 1983 and the crackdown on the student movement in 1989 – and underscores the prophetic element of the narrative.

Unfortunately, the story grinds to a halt midway through that interrogation. Once the secret of the missing month has been revealed and the official begins to explicate China’s place in the world and its pursuit of international influence, the work feels less like a novel and more like a political speech (at one point, the official is described as responding to a question “as if he were giving a lecture”). Whether or not this is a deliberate subversion of genre conventions, it certainly is tough going for a reader who is looking for a plot movement as opposed to a 40-page political treatise.

And it’s that treatise, and the political commentary in the rest of the novel, that’s at the heart of the attention that Age of Prosperity has received. An interesting exploration of novel’s critique of the “Chinese model of development” by Zhansui Yu can be found at The China Beat; other recent reviews include those by Linda Jaivin at China Heritage Quarterly and by Xujun Eberlein at Foreign Policy. (These reviews all include extensive spoilers, so exercise caution.)

The Foreign Policy review tags the book as “the return of politically charged science fiction in China,” and in it Eberlein suggests that socially-conscious science fiction disappeared in the wake of the anti-spiritual pollution campaign of 1983. It was replaced by “time travel, space voyage, robot battles, you name it — but social or political criticism, as you might read in books like George Orwell’s 1984, is almost completely lacking.” Although the campaign did bring to a close the first stage of reform-era Chinese SF and end the careers of a number of prominent writers, in the decades that followed, science fiction stories that addressed issues in contemporary society and politics were never totally absent.

Chan is not even the first writer of socially-oriented science fiction in China to propose the idea of authorities seeking to maintain stability, boost national prestige, and ensure GDP growth by keeping the public contented and ignorant (chemically or otherwise). For example, “The Olympic Dream” (奥运梦, translated at CDT), a short story that was widely reposted across the Chinese-language Internet in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, imagined the Beijing authorities giving local residents hibernation pills so they’d stay out of the way of the foreign guests attending the Games. Continue reading “Social commentary in Chinese SF: 2013, Han Song, and others”

College-educated rat-catchers as pawns in a tussle over intellectual property

YEAR OF THE RAT (鼠年) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), the story of unemployable college graduates who join up with a military brigade sent out to fight genetically-programmed rats.

"Year of the Rat"

Every year, China’s colleges and universities pour out more graduates into the work force than can find decent career placement, leaving highly-educated workers to scrape by in low-paying entry-level jobs. In the cities, where the cost of living is skyrocketing, they can only afford to live in dense, communal apartments, a lifestyle that has lent the group its name: the Ant Tribe. Lian Si’s study of the same name (蚁族), published in late 2009, brought the plight of these graduates to national prominence, but angst over post-graduation opportunities has been growing for many years.

In “Year of the Rat” (鼠年), published in the May 2009 issue of Science Fiction World, Stanley Chan Qiufan (陈楸帆) gives his unemployable college seniors an opportunity to serve their country by joining up with a rat-fighting brigade. Armed with crude spears, the new recruits hunt Neorats (新鼠), genetically-altered rodents that escaped from the incubators where they were being raised for export to international markets. It’s brutal work, particularly as the rats begin to evolve in ways that make them harder to track and kill, but the young men have no other choice, a lesson that is hammered into them by their boot camp drill instructor:

Why are you here? Because you’re a bunch of pussies! A bunch of failures, to put it politely. You wasted tons of the country’s food and resources, you squandered your parents’ funeral money, and then you couldn’t even find a job. You can’t even support yourselves. You’re fit for nothing but catching rats, hanging out with rats! Here’s what I really think: I think that you’re not even fit for rats. Rats can bring in foreign exchange when they’re exported, but you? Look at all of you! Tell me — are you capable? Is this chasing girls, cheating, or playing games?

College graduates, men in particular, are next to worthless in an economy that depends on cheap labor and has little intellectual property of its own. Here’s a conversation the protagonist has with a classmate, Li Xiaoxia, after he’s decided to enlist:

She said, “Interesting. My Dad raises rats, but you’re going to exterminate rats. Exterminating rats in the Year of the Rat. Brilliant.”

I asked, “So are you going home to help them after graduation?”

She screwed up her mouth. “I’m not going to be cheap labor.”

To Li Xiaoxia, this industry was no different from the old OEM electronics and garment manufacturing industries. Not in possession of the core technologies, it depended entirely on imported embryos which it then incubated, and at a certain stage subjected them to stringent product testing. Neorats that met the standard were exported to a foreign country where they were implanted with a custom response program and then became high-end pets for the rich. There was reportedly a three-year waiting list , and thus it was best for the low-tech, time-consuming incubation stage to be located in the Factory to the World, with its vast labor force.

“If that’s the case, then I can’t see any reason to exterminate them.”

“First, you’re not exterminating Neorats that meet the standard for export. Second, the escaped Neorats may have been subjected to gene modulation.”

Xiaoxia explained that just like OEM iPhones used to be cracked and made into knock-offs loaded with a bunch of random programs, these days the owners of Neorat farms would hire technicians to manipulate the rats’ DNA, mainly to increase the birth and survival rates of female rats, otherwise they would operate at a loss much of the time.

“I’ve heard that this massive escape is a way for the incubation industry to fight for their own interests by putting pressure on certain arms of the state?”

Xiaoxia disagreed: “And I’ve heard that it’s just a chip the Western Alliance is using in their game with us. Who can say?”

As I looked across at the beautiful, talented woman, my thoughts were uncertain. Be they Neorat or human, females now played a key role in the control of the world’s future. They had no need to worry about unemployment, as the continued decline in birthrates had brought tax incentives to enterprises that hired women, so that those women would have a more relaxed environment for raising children. Nor did they need to worry about finding a partner; for unknown reasons, the male-to-female ration in newborns was still on the rise, so perhaps very soon men would have to learn how to share one woman, while a single woman could monopolize many men.

As the exterminators track their prey, they gradually come to realize that the Neorats far more sophisticated than they had imagined, and they begin to notice signs that the genetically-modified rodents may have evolved some form of society. Ultimately, however, both science and the military are subservient to the marketplace, and the rats and rat-fighters are merely pawns in a much larger game.

Note: The translations above were based on the version of “Year of the Rat” included in The Year’s Best Chinese Science Fiction Collection, 2009 (2009年度中国最佳科幻小说集), edited by Wu Yan, which is punctuated differently in a number of places than the versions found in SFW and online. Stanley Chan and I recently took part in a podcast on contemporary Chinese SF; see a brief writeup on Danwei (mainland version on Danwei.tv).

Send a reporter!

Journalists as narrators in Chinese SF.

elephant-sized pigNot long ago I ran across a microblog post (since deleted) that used the image at right to mock some sort of trendy pseudoscience — possibly Zhang Wuben’s mung-bean miracle cure. In his comment to that post, science fiction author and critic Wu Yan mentioned the story “Elephants with Their Trunks Removed” (割掉鼻子的大象, 1957), a classic of children’s SF from the early PRC.

The story is narrated by a reporter who is dispatched to an agricultural research center in the Gobi Desert to report on the latest achievements, and it reminded me of a number of other Chinese SF stories that feature journalists as narrators.

The five works discussed below may only be related by virtue of being narrated by journalists, but they are fairly representative of changing trends in Chinese SF in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“Elephants,” written by Chi Shuchang (迟叔昌) with contributions by Middle School Student magazine editor Ye Zhishan (叶至善), is a snapshot of Great Leap Forward-era scientific romanticism. Originally titled “A Twentieth-Century Zhu Bajie” (after the pig-demon hero of Journey to the West), the story is included in Classics of Chinese Science Fiction (中国科幻小说经典, 2006), edited by science fiction writer and court biographer Ye Yonglie, and is also available online here.

In the story, journalist Yuesen, meets up with his former classmate Li Wenjian, who now works at the research center. On the way, Yuesen notices what seem to be white elephants whose trunks are missing, but once he arrives, he learns that they’re actually gigantic pigs known as “Wonder #72,” which were created by accelerating the growth of cross-bred Sichuan white pigs and Yorkshire pigs by irradiating the pituitary gland.

The pigs in the story match up perfectly with the description given in the poem on the top left of the poster (source):

肥猪赛大象 Fat pigs that best the elephants,
就是鼻子短 But for a shorter snout.
全社杀一口 The commune kills and eats one,
足够吃半年 Six months before it’s out.

Like much of 20th-Century Chinese SF, “Elephants” is not simply entertainment — it also fulfills an pedagogical mission. Both men were math and physics enthusiasts in high school, and the story demonstrates that they were able to pursue that interest in their chosen careers. The value of math in agriculture is illustrated through a discussion of the cube-square law as it relates to breeding such enormous animals (they’ve had to use a special “bone strengthening serum”). The accelerated growth also means that the pigs are fully grown at ten months, making their meat especially tender and tasty. And math in journalism? “Look at the newspapers. Isn’t there an increasing amount of math and physics vocabulary?” (Ye, 128)

The story is set in some undisclosed year in the future (“19xx”). Hi-tech details, such as wristwatch radios and “Beijing” model hovercraft, place the action toward the end of the century, but many of the issues, from giant pigs to the necessity of conserving iron, are rooted in the late 50s. It’s a dissonance that shows up in several of the stories discussed in this post: Continue reading “Send a reporter!”

Alai’s Call to Arms for Fantasy Writers

From 2004, Alai writes about the new Fantasy army.

Note: An earlier version of this translation was originally published on ZHWJ in April 2004.

Alai, the author of Tibetan-themed fiction such as Red Poppies and a Chinese-language adaptation of the epic of King Gesar, served as editor of Science Fiction World from 1997 through 2006. During that time he helped the agency launch a number of new titles, including Fantasy World.

The following is a translation of Alai’s introduction to the inaugural issue of Fantasy World, April 2004:

Fantasy, Leading Our Spirits to Break Free

by Alai

Taking up my pen to write a few words for this new fantasy edition — actually, two issues have already been sent out into the world to a welcome from young readers far exceeding our expectations — when I searched for a reason, I found I was unable to collect my thoughts. The words of a Whitman poem echoed in my mind:

WHAT place is besieged, and vainly tries to raise the siege?
Lo! I send to that place a commander, swift, brave, immortal;
And with him horse and foot—and parks of artillery,
And artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.

A short poem, entitled “What Place is Besieged?” The sharp reader may inquire: Are you certain, then, that we are someplace that is besieged? My answer: At least within the confines of literature, our thoughts and our imagination have been bound for ages in shapeless fetters, several generations at the very least.

This is a short period of time when measured against history, and against the scale of the universe, it barely rates as an instant. But we are not God, we are only the creators of our own physical and spiritual realities, and to us a few generations is an eternity. Our lifespan is incomparably precious to us, so aside from a rich variety of material things, we also pursue a free spirit and abundant emotions. But in the literary world, we are surrounded by a mistaken realist outlook and a mistaken interpretation of that mistaken realist outlook. Our abundant emotions have withered, and our spirits that once danced upon the clouds have had their wings clipped, leaving them to crawl around in the mud.

Yes, this is the result of being surrounded, of being fettered. For an individual, the feeling of being surrounded and fettered may lead to an intense ferocity. I have in mind another poet, Rilke, whose poem about a caged panther described the feeling of being bound by the fetters of normal human existence.

My spiritual adolescence occurred during the 1980s. Beginning in that era, the spirit of the Chinese people began to break out in earnest. Chinese literature was similarly an important advance force in this sortie, Whitman’s “horse and foot” and at times even the “artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun.” I had the privilege of being a member of this break-away unit, at first in the ranks of poetry and fiction in the camp of so-called mainstream literature, and then later on, given the opportunity to join a new unit which was just beginning to recruit members for its ranks, I became part of the new literary army of science fiction, which had been harded through adversity. During the 1990s, under the gradual flourishing of the market economy, science fiction became one important success for the spiritual siege-breaking of Chinese literature, despite the fact that it had yet to fully convince the academy of its importance, or even gain the notice of the mainstream. This may indicate that the breakout has yet to be entirely successful.

Dismissing the importance of fantastic literature is a major failing of the overall structure and organization of Chinese literature. The language of the mainstream — of official literature — does not even possess the proper vocabulary to describe the appearance and flavor of this kind of writing. Of course, this failure has nothing to do with us. All we can do is to construct an advance base in silent preparation for the muster of this new literary army. In the 1990s, when the forces of the science fiction world were yet muted, we unequivocally held high the flag of science fiction, achieving small yet solid victories. Today, while science fiction is still neglected among the lethargic upper echelons of the establishment, the surpassing beauty of fantasy is overflowing in all directions, infiltrating and expanding across the literary map, and a new, increasingly grand, increasingly vibrant army is marching under glorious colors. And this army is growing without the command or support of any institution or authority, just like the spontaneous militias in the New World of Whitman’s time. Yet unlike Whitman, they do not even ask the question, “will we ‘vainly try to raise the siege?'” but have already set off.

Discipline improves by the day, the unit gets stronger, and the battlefield expands. Ask “What place is besieged?” and the answer is, our spiritual world is besieged. Distortions of the truth form a hedge around our imagination. A single realm of artistic production has become the entire domain of literature. Creativity and imagination are shut up in a plaza filled with the din of mediocre sociology. Now we must choose another route of escape; at the start of the 21st century, we are starting to recruit a new literary army. To break out of the confines of mediocre literature, this army seeks “horse and foot,” and the “artillery-men, the deadliest that ever fired gun,” whose weapons are creativity and fantasy.

This army believes that literature, and especially fiction, is writing that expresses possibilities. Real life and established history only express a single possibility; all of the others vanish once one possibility becomes actuality. To make up for this shortcoming, our predecessors invented fictional writing. But too often we have made use of this style of writing to describe nothing more than a single possibility, that of real life.

This army believes that there are far more ways to express life than simply copying reality. We can harness writing, in concert with boundless imagination, to construct the possibilities of spiritual reality. This is our starting position, and we set off to realize those possibilities.

As we set off to realize these new literary possibilities, this army believes that they have been successfully realized by foreigners and our own ancestors alike. In the past we may have raised the banner of science fiction and stressed its implications for scientific enlightenment, but now, as we assemble to move out, we emphasize the magnificence of the fantastic, for fantasy has been besieged for too long a time. As we being our journey, we seek this as our goal: through great imagination, construct a grand history, then use that history to describe lives which transcend reality. This is rallying cry of the dynamic Novoland writers group, and it is also the individual watchword of Qian Lifang, the author of Providence.

The first charge has already reported victory!

Since ancient times, fantasy has always held reality within it, not the other way around. Throughout the ages, China has had a bright tradition of fantastic literature, as Borges noted in his remarks on the classic Strange Tales from Liaozhai: “A powerful imagination, using the most common source material, effortlessly weaves a plot; its rhythm undulates like flowing water, its thousand guises like floating clouds.” Such things are precisely what today’s literature is missing in its current state! So this army believes that imagination and fantasy can not only help us break out of this literary predicament, but can also continue the splendid fantasy tradition of Chinese culture. Let all of our readers, writers, and editors encourage each other! To all of the existing participants, those about to join, and everyone who will join in the future: let us look toward the future and strive together! In this new century, the Chinese people cannot and will not continue be slaves to dogma, overcautiously meeting the world.