Tag Archives: military

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 Danwei.tv).

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.

Terrorism on the Frozen Seas

This review was originally published at ZHWJ on 14 June, 2004.

Reviewed in this article:
Cold Ice, Hot Blood
Zheng Jun (郑军)
350 pages / 275,000 chars

Obtaining fresh water has become a pressing problem in many parts of the world, including China. Agriculture, industry, and larger society all compete for a dwindling supply of water. There have even been predictions that wars in the next century will be fought not over oil or mineral rights, but over access to fresh water. In Cold Ice, Hot Blood, author Zheng Jun spins the fact that 70% of the Earth’s fresh water is trapped in the Antarctic ice into a techno-thriller set on an iceberg floating in the Indian Ocean.

The Berg Express company (it has a Chinese name but is called “BE” throughout the novel) is in its fifth year in the iceberg transport business. The founder, Qin Yu, is a self-made billionaire from a large, poor family in China’s northeast, who originally had scrapped his way up to become the owner of a small shipping company. He came across some articles by a university lecturer, Sun Yiran, who had developed a way of propelling icebergs using hydrogen fuels. Qin Yu financed his research, and in 2005 they shipped their first iceberg to the Arabian Peninsula.

In the four years since, the company continued to expand, shipping icebergs to parched areas, and landing Qin Yu on the cover of Time as Man of the Year. Iceberg water turns out to be cheaper and better tasting than desalinized seawater, and the sheer volume of fresh water now available to regions like the Middle East holds forth the promise of an end to territorial conflict. BE ships eight icebergs a year, with plans to expand to a maximum of about twenty-six.

The immense scale of the operations, as well as the scientific and technological heroism involved in transporting such massive objects, might recall the scientism of early American SF (and recent Chinese SF). Zheng Jun dispenses with that early on, however, when he mentions the motives of BE’s founders:

Although all of the technological wonders were built alongside a wariness of nature’s greatness, the two great heads of the BE company did nothing to refute the charge of attempting to “conquer nature.” Qin Yu craved greatness and reveled in this wording. He knew that in the eyes of westerners, nature was God’s creation, so to conquer nature was to wrestle with God. “I don’t believe in God–so what if I want to wrestle with him a bit?” Qin Yu once boasted at a company party.

Sun Yiran talked of his own attitude in a smaller setting: a person needs to conquer something; putting more attention on “conquering nature” means less attention on subjugating other people.

Cold Ice, Hot Blood, page 84

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