Category Archives: Quick review

An intimate apocalypse

Xiuzai’s Summer
Ge Shuyi (哥舒意)
223 pages

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.

On the Island by Ren Xiaowen


A mental patient who may or may not have killed her professor, with whom she may or may not have been having an affair, is shipped off to a strange island colony whose handful of inmates divide their time between long shifts of manual labor and sessions of vicious gossip about each other. Following instructions from the “ship’s captain,” the island’s shadowy master, a bored cadre conducts criticism sessions in which he encourages the inmates to confess to elaborate crimes.

There’s not much of a plot beyond a slow reveal of the island’s purpose, but the narrator’s desire to recover her lost memory and understand how she arrived on the island keep the book moving until the inmates’ fragile society collapses and the dead bodies start piling up.

This is the author’s first novel, written in 2002 but only published this year following a collection of short stories and a second novel, The Women (她们).

Ball Lightning by Liu Cixin


A man who witnesses both his parents get turned to ash by ball lightning devotes his entire life to researching the poorly-understood phenomenon. His quest takes him to a national defense research institute where government scientists are seeking to use ball lightning as a new-concept weapon. He becomes disgusted with the thought of his pure scientific research being used for killing, but every time he tries to escape, his obsession draws him back in.

Ball Lightning is well-paced and tightly plotted. Liu handles the science quite well, and the current state of lightning and weather research, as well as his speculative explanation, hang together just enough to stave off disbelief. His depiction of military research is not at all boosterish, and the believable characters, including the self-doubting narrator, a woman who is enamored with danger and destruction, and a physicist who is out for pure knowledge, damn the consequences, add depth to the story. Highly recommended.

A short excerpt is available at Words Without Borders magazine, and a longer, 12,000-word excerpt can be downloaded from the Paper Republic literary website.

A History of the Conquest of the Maya by Ma Boyong

Alternate history as comic novel. Ma Boyong imagines a meeting between exiled forces of the Shang Dynasty and pre-Columbian middle America.

The book originated online and is written in the same arch tone that Ma employs to great effect on his blog. He’s also obviously a fan of Stephen Chow.

Lightweight and fun, the book will probably grate on anyone familiar with actual Mayan history, although it does acquit itself better than the other “China meets Maya” novel I read this year. (That book, thankfully, remains unpublished.)

Offline by Lala


Ace hacker gets kicked out of the Matrix because he forgot to pay his broadband bill. There’s no one left in the world but a bunch of robots, and someone wants to extract his spine. He gets saved by a sentient window-washer and then goes on the run from the forces of a communications conglomerate run by a malevolent AI.

Like Lala’s Galaxy-award-winning Green Fields, this is a fast-paced adventure built around an interesting concept. It does drag a bit in a talky denouement, and the philosophical musings aren’t incredibly novel. But on the whole it’s a good read.