I was tapped for the “123 meme” a while ago and fulfilled my duty in the comments section of the Mutant Palm blog with a citation from a Xu Kun novel.
I’ve been asked to do the same thing for a SF book, so I’ll use Pan Haitian’s Run, Dajiao! Run, which actually happened to be the closest science fiction book around when I learned of the meme.
It’s a short story collection by an author who’s probably still best known for The Legend of Master Yan, an adaptation of an anecdote from the ancient classic Liezi that describes automatons who do their masters’ bidding. Pan’s most recent work has been in the realm of fantasy, and he’s been involved with Jin He Zai in the Novoland project, an attempt to build an indigenous fantasy universe.
The title story in Run, Dajiao! Run! is constructed as a fable: on a quest for a drug that will save his dying mother, a young man runs from city to city, passing through cities of Hedonism, Industry, and so forth. It’s an old trope, but Pan’s writing is engaging and the various worlds are well-drawn.
Page 123 turns out to be in the centerpiece of this collection, the novella Out of the Darkness (黑暗中归来), which is an interesting take on the Space Ark story. A ship headed for some distant star has navigated into a cluster of dark matter, rendering all sensors ineffective. The crew, grown from test-tubes, take classes in stellar navigation and astrophysics, information that to them seems nothing more than faith-based superstition. They eventually revolt.
Just before the following excerpt, tensions among the crew are high. The narrator spooked his crewmate Eberhard while he was holding a test-tube full of cockroaches, causing him to lose control and drop it, scattering the bugs everywhere.
After that moment of fright, I turned and glared at Eberhard: “Fine. You stupid blockhead, you think you’re so special. You’ve let out the cockroaches. Are you satisfied?”
Flustered, Eberhard said, “I was just trying to help you.” He was always trying to find ways to help people, I thought angrily. “Are those things dangerous?” “There won’t be any problems, right?” He was always asking that, his voice quavering with fright. But whenever he was around, there was no chance for safety.
The cockroach infestation of the ship is just one symbol of the breakdown of order among the crew. The narrator eventually breaks with the paranoid conspiracy-mongers (who see the on-board computer as part of a vast conspiracy to hide the Real Truth) and learns the self-discipline necessary to take his place as captain of the ship and see it through to starry shores.
There are other interesting stories in this collection:
- A Ladder to the Stars: Hanuman, The Monkey King: The earth, which holds a backward society whose only hope is to escape to the stars, is visited by colonists who look like Monkeys and talk of their great King, Hanuman. Naturally, the earthlings kill off most of these monkey spacemen, or relegate them to concentration camps. A girl and her friends attempt to escape the planet with the help of one monkey who wasn’t caught up in the security sweeps.
- The City of Clones: An empire has made extensive use of clones in its wars of conquest. The son of the emperor is sent out to deal with a clone revolt, but disagrees with his father’s treatment of the clone army, because of his affection for a palace servant woman who has asked him to spare the leader of the rebels. It’s a relatively straightforward story distinguished by its references to Plato.
- The Dark Side of a White Star: There’s an accident at a mining colony and a team is sent to investigate. It discovers a strange life form that is killing off human life. The set-up of this story reminds me of a Star Trek episode, what with the search for a way to live in harmony, but some of the syncretic religious elements are fairly interesting.
- A Place Where Fate is Determined: The story of a “Non-Player Character” in a role-playing game.
Pan Haitian’s English name is Peter, which at first glance you’d be inclined to chalk up to an unfortunate coincidence. However, Peter Pan has decided to make the connection to his literary namesake explicit with a pull-out illustration of a boy on a pirate ship. Nothing to do with the book’s contents, I’m afraid.