Category Archives: Reviews

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

Age of Prosperity
John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中)
261 pages

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

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

“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