Top positive review
Sci Fi flowers in China !!
Reviewed in the United States on November 15, 2019
A youthful generation of sci fi writers is flourishing in China. Their writing is cousin to the American genre, it features robots, bio-engineered creatures, and dystopian cities. The inspiration comes from closer sources, from their childhood science books, from modern Chinese history, and from the rise of a technological and surprisingly wealthy China. The translator is Ken Liu, an American science fiction writer. He warns American readers of the temptation to read the stories as a veiled critique of the People’s Republic, because that’s not always the intention.
The anthology opens with ‘Year of the Rat’, by Chen Quifang. This a mysterious story about an unemployed and demoralized university graduate who is drafted into a civil defense force. His unit is armed with spears and sent to the countryside to fight a plague of bio-engineered rats. These might be the mutant descendants of cute and intelligent rats who were bred for export to Europe as pets. I’ll leave you to discover what follows.
The best story is Hao Jingfang’s ‘Folding Beijing’, which won a Hugo for Best Novella in 2016. The story has attracted the attention of engineers in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). In the story, robots and AI produce an abundance of goods. The bulk of the profits accrue to the governing class of 5 million and some to the middle class of 25 million. The lower class of 50 million struggles to survive by laboring long hours cleaning and maintaining the city.
She imagines a coldly dystopian Beijing, optimized to manage this distribution of wealth and work. Beijing within the Sixth Ring Road is a giant urban machine that folds the city upside down every 48 hours. The governing class lives above ground for 24 hours, then the city rotates upside down to expose the buildings of the middle & lower classes. The middle class enjoys the surface for 16 hours, then its buildings retract and the buildings of the lower class unfold. They have 8 hours to clean and maintain the city.
The story is about a lower class worker, hired to carry a message from a grad student in the middle class sector, to the student’s lover on the reverse, wealthy side. Near the close of the story, the protagonist discovers that his life of hard labor in the lower class sector was unnecessary. The work could have been done by robots, but the governing class prefers to keep workers busy.
I was charmed by an explosively colorful and original short story, ‘Call Girl’, by an apparently LGBT writer, Tang Fei. The final short stories are by the modern Sci Fi master, Cixin Liu. For those of you who’ve missed it, I highly recommend his trilogy of novels, The Three-Body Problem. The anthology closes with short essays on the state of Chinese sci fi.
No single message unites these stories. It’s hard however to miss the pervasive mood of anxiety and foreboding. Perhaps that's about what's challenged every Chinese government, the absorption into employment of the annual cohorts of graduating students that emerge from China’s population of 1.4 billion. Or perhaps the darkness relates implicitly to the tragedies of Chinese history: Cixin Liu begins his trilogy with a scene from the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps Ken Liu is at least partly wrong ,and the source of the darkness is the shadow cast by an enormously powerful state.