UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo (2009)

UFO In Her Eyes cover
It probably only just meets the length requirement for a novel, but this slim, elegantly composed volume about the modernisation of a rural Chinese village has lingered with me, unpacking in my mind over time. I reviewed it a couple of years ago:

There are moments of bureaucratic absurdity, and moments when the remote fumbles of government have all too real consequences. The society presented is one in which “peasant” is a political designation, where by habit much is censored, or simply not reported. (“Disaster belongs to the West” [154], Chang cynically notes, in another unguarded moment.) If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a slim book (it is only a shade over 200 pages) then, well, it is. Guo is not a writer who paints her panoramas with detail; rather, she suggests much with a few strokes of the pen, and provokes much in the reader. The bulk of UFO in Her Eyes has a documentary coolness and sweep, which is occasionally counterpointed by vivid close-ups. Much that is troubling hides behind the carefully correct official answers, through reference to the past or gesture to the future; along with just enough sweetness to make eating the bitterness bearable, even as the first smog clouds the sky above Silver Hill.

Please email me with your top ten science fiction novels by women from the last ten years (2001-2010). All votes must be received by 23.59 on Sunday 5 December. Your own definition of science fiction applies.

Under Heaven

Under Heaven coverCasting around for a way to start to convey what Guy Gavriel Kay gets up to in Under Heaven, I found myself thinking of another recent fantasy novel. Jo Walton’s Lifelode (2009) is a rather different kind of book, one that does not attract adjectives like “sumptuous” so readily — it is, for not quite enough of its length, a beautifully low-key rural-domestic fantasy, set in a world in which time moves faster, and life is more wild, the further East you travel. Perhaps partly in response to this flux, and the effect it has on people as they travel, the characters in Walton’s novel have a word to describe someone who is being utterly, characteristically, themselves: truly embodying a quality. No such word exists within the world of Under Heaven, and for a reader looking in from outside the reason seems clear: it is unthinkable that any character in Kay’s novel could act in any way other than to be utterly, characteristically, themselves.

The daunting clarity of Kay’s vision extends beyond the individual. It’s probably well-known by now that Under Heaven tells a story inspired by events that took place in China’s Tang Dynasty — it’s certainly not a secret, since a letter to readers at the start of the Roc ARC sets out to justify this choice. And in fact, I’d argue that any solid understanding of the novel must confront and absorb at least the implications of Kay’s approach. (A deep reading would consider the details of the execution as well, but that’s not something I’m competent to attempt.) Under Heaven’s debt to history is heavier than most epic fantasy seeks, and evident in its choice of setting, story and characters, most of which have real counterparts; even if you don’t accept Kay’s assertion that this is a more moral strategy than straightforward history would be, it’s worth recognising how it shapes the narrative and tone of the novel. Precisely because it is a fantasy novel, and not a historical novel, Kay’s creation can be what you might call a platonic ideal of Tang China: a world of heart-stopping beauty, home to humans capable of astonishing subtlety and cruelty, all described with precision and thoroughness. Or to use Walton’s term, Under Heaven seems raensome.

This affect — magic but little mystery — is familiar from the other Kay novel I’ve read, The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), and from what I gather it’s an increasingly prominent feature of his work. But it seems particularly useful here, given the particular history being reworked, in defusing the notion of inscrutability. Characters outside the empire of Kitai — Kay’s Tang — are liable to find its citizens as baffling as Western stereotypes assert in our world, complaining of “the breeding and courtesy” that Kitai citizens “donned like a cloak” (29). A courtesan known as Spring Rain, brought to the very heart of Kitai from Western lands, reflects that she could study her masters until she was “bent like an ox-cart wheel” without understanding them, “or how the Celestial Empire dominates the world they know” (148). And Kay’s superlative-rich style risks beauty fatigue; there are more than a few moments when it seems the extravagance of his vision might be better expressed as one of the poems whose cultural importance he so openly admires.

But we readers are led into the minds the outsiders cannot know: so we can appreciate how the elaborate dances of the Kitai Court are designed to both channel and restrain human responses, how they perpetuate themselves and how human passions, like water from a dammed river, may find a new course. It is an article of faith within Kitai that it represents “the most civilized empire the world had ever known” (79). The intertwined superiority and fear that this attitude breeds snake into every character’s heart, surfacing in the superstitious caricaturisation of the world beyond Kitai; or in the tendency to philosophise about changes in “the world”, as though Kitai were the whole of it. The empire is a weight; a lot of characters spend a lot of time being angry under its burden, or exhausted by the attempt to negotiate the elaborate formalities of their society.

Our guide in this, the figure to which the novel most consistently returns, is so far as I can tell one of the characters that Kay creates from whole cloth. Shen Tai is the second son of a dead general; a man of deep passions and firm convictions. When we meet him he is embarked on a ritual mourning whose duration and ambition would be absurd if not rendered within Kay’s stately narrative. He has travelled to the edge of the empire and beyond, to the site of a great battle — a place whose extraordinary beauty is thrown into relief by the numberless bones that litter it — to bury the dead of both sides. As the novel opens, two things happen that will draw Tai back East, to the heart of the Empire. The first is that he escapes an assassination attempt for which there is no clear motive. The second is that a princess of Kitai’s past opponents, ostensibly as a token of her admiration for Tai’s work, gifts him two hundred and fifty quality horses — “Heavenly Horses”, as they are known, bigger and stronger than any Imperial stock — instantly, and unwelcomely, making him a player in the Emperor’s court.

Although the assassination attempt initially provides the more urgent narrative impetus, in the end it’s the existence of the horses that shapes the story told in Under Heaven as much or more than the actions of any individual characters, providing the new angle on the well-known story. It’s an interesting frame; it keeps some of what might be expected to be big set-piece events off-stage, but I think Kay is less interested in capturing those than he is in describing the feel of a moment of historical possibility. What’s significant about the gift of horses is that it positions Tai as someone able “to play a role in the balance of power towards the end of a long reign” (139). Certainly, Tai himself seems crafted to play this role: his connectedness allows him to slide in and out of the levels of society, while his initial innocence enables him to serve as our guide. It is easy to follow him. But more than that, both Kay’s letter-to-reader and the text of the novel are at pains to point out that creating a fantasy of history such as this is inherently an act that creates possibility. That is, the novel does successfully open up a space between what was and what might happen: enable a sense that, in contrast to the fatalism on display from some in the Kitai court, lives can and do fork, and that there can be, for better or worse, other worlds.

At this point I should probably specify that the historical event from which Kay weaves his story, the narrative through which Tai and his horses ghost, is the eighth century An Shi rebellion, in which a powerful governor of humble ancestry attempted to usurp the ruling dynasty, resulting in nearly a decade of strife and the deaths — as much from famine and disease as anything else — of several tens of millions of people. To set this out is not a spoiler, not just because Kay acknowledges the inspiration, but because of that possibility space, which refreshes the seeming inevitability of history.

But the relationship goes deeper. Kay is scrupulous about emphasising that Under Heaven is a story. We are, he writes, pattern-seeking creatures, and this shapes our approach to history: we are liable to abstract it, to simplify it, to use it for our own ends. Put another way, the creation of a possibility space — the creation of story from history — creates meaning. The novelistic attention to coincidence becomes an illustration of such: “Only a patient historian with access to records is likely to discover such links,” Kay writes; only “someone shaping a story for palace or marketplace … would note these conjunctions and judge them worth the telling” (542). And for all that Kitai is no less concrete than a description of the historical Tang would be, for all that the overlap between the two is not nearly small enough for Kitai to be taken as entirely independent — for all that Under Heaven’s raensomeness inescapably makes it a novel “about” Tang China in a way that it is not a novel “about” any specific Tang figures — it is still an abstraction, still a use of history. Under Heaven aims to extract the essence of a time and a place, such that it becomes “universalized in powerful ways”: but it tells you it’s doing it, and argues that if all history is story, there can be no final, specific truth, only degrees and directions of universalization.

Such an argument requires a carefully controlled narrative, and Kay’s control of his narrative is very good indeed; may be the best thing about the book, in fact. He works diligently not just to create but to maintain the spaces he claims, particularly in Under Heaven’s final third, when it is confirmed that the novel is a threnody for a culture at the height of its power choosing to diminish. As the implied narrator becomes a real narrator, and the focus gradually pulls back from the story’s present, we are reminded that this telling is only one among an endless series of interpretations and reinterpretations. It’s a hugely moving and fascinating gambit: never in the novel is the potency of historiography clearer, never the distinction between story and history more important, never the tension between the transparency of Kay’s created characters and the unattainability of the people who really lived more palpable. It is, in many ways, a tremendous achievement.

The Prosperous Time

I wonder if this explains why there’s been a small bump in traffic for this post?

So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China’s near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police.
[…]
The significance — and uniqueness — of the novel is that it is a work of social science fiction, a subgenre that has become virtually nonexistent since the establishment of the People’s Republic.
[…]
… epitomized by Lao She’s controversial 1932 novel, Cat Country. Lao She, one of the most important Chinese writers of the last century, published his only science-fiction novel as serial installments in a magazine. The story is set on Mars. Although it was published 13 years before Orwell’s Animal Farm, the political satire functions in similar fashion, with intrigues among a colony of cats on Mars serving as criticism of contemporary political reality in China. It was the only Chinese sci-fi novel then translated into foreign languages.

Let’s hope China 2013 follows in Cat Country‘s footsteps, and appears over here before too long.

EDIT: Next year, apparently!

Cat Country

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this before, but for the last however long I’ve been slowly (very slowly) working my way through Jonathan Fenby’s hefty Penguin History of Modern China, picked as a starting point for increasing my historical knowledge largely because my knowledge of its subject was so sketchy. A little while ago, this passage caught my eye, for reasons that will become obvious:

Between 1929 and 1935, 458 literary works were banned for slandering the authorities, encouraging the class struggle or constituting “proletarian literature”. A draconian press law was introduced in 1930. Film directors were told that their work should be 30 per cent entertaining and 70 per cent educational, to promote “good morals and demonstrate the spirit of fortitude, endurance, peace and the uprightness of the people.”

Though the regime was not strong enough or sufficiently centralized to exert repression on the scale of Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR, progressive writes and intellectuals were marginalized, harassed and, at worst, arrested and killed. […]

A cutting allegory of China, Cat Country by the Beijing writer Lao She, carried the sense of despair to a pitch of high irony, telling of a Chinese who landed on Mars, where he found a population of cat people who were lazy, dirty, cruel, undisciplined, disorganized, and addicted to drugs. The cat emperor had been overthrown, and replaced by the Ruler of Ten Thousand Brawls. Then the ‘small people’ had invaded and slaughtered all the cat people except for ten who escaped to a mountain. There, they went on fighting among themselves until only two were left. Caught by the invaders, they were put in a wooden cage where they bit one another to death.* (211-12)

The asterisk indicates a footnote, which with delightful casualness relates that “The narrator gets back to China on a passing French spacecraft”. Anyway, on reading this my first reaction was ooh; and when I googled and discovered that Cat Country is “sometimes seen as the first important Chinese science fiction novel”, I thought ah-ha. Great was my woe when I discovered that it is well and truly out of print; and great my joy when Nic borrowed the Oxford Chinese Studies library’s copy on my behalf. (The benefits of an academic other half!)

Cat Country coverIt’s an Ohio State University Press edition, translated by William A. Lyell, Jr and published in 1970, and comes complete with an Introduction by Lyell that provides a bit more background about the life and work of Lao She — a pseudonym for one Shu Qingchun, b. 1898, d. 1966. The reason for his pseudonymity is not specified: given the situation in China at the time he started writing, I wouldn’t be surprised if a desire to speak freely had something to do with it; on the other hand, Lao She was living in Britain at the time he became a writer, and only returned to China in 1931, so maybe he just fancied (as, of course, is his right) having a pen-name.

Lyell provides a (slightly stilted) sketch of the political situation in China at the time Lao She started writing. His first novels were published in the heart of the warlord era, just before the worst of the Nanjing decade as it is described in the above extract: a time of national unification that was nominal at best, and a time when China faced continual aggression from Japan, and interference from other nations. In fact, the manuscript of one of Lao She’s novels was destroyed in one China-Japan incident, which led to Cat Country being written, in 1932, as a deliberate airing of his “disappointment in national affairs and indignation over China’s military failures” (xxxvii). However Lao She himself considered the book a failure; Lyell quotes him:

What I thought [about the situation in China at the time I wrote Cat Country] was what most ordinary people were thinking and there was really no need to say it since everybody knew it anyway … I simply gave a straight-forward presentation of what was common knowledge at the time and then dignified the whole thing by calling it “satire”. I guess I must have gotten carried away. In my hands “satire” became “preaching”, and the more I preached the more sickening it became. A man who takes it upon himself to preach to people is either exceedingly intelligent or an utter numbskull. Now I know that I’m not the brightest man in the world, but I’m not willing to admit that I’m an utter ass either. And yet, since in fact I did write Cat Country, what can I say? (xxxix-xl)

Lyell suggests that Cat Country is nevertheless worth reading because it “… is better than Lao She would have us believe. There is some spritely as well as tedious writing in it. Like most of Lao She’s novels, it is uneven in quality. In addition to literary value, however, it possess a great deal of worth as social documentation on China in the early thirties” (xli).

Do I agree? Broadly speaking, yes. Here is the narrator’s first description of Mars, shortly after he has crash-landed:

I saw a grey sky. It was not a cloudy sky, but rather a grey-coloured atmosphere. One couldn’t say that the light of the sun was weak, because I felt very hot; however, its light was not in direct proportion to its thermal power. It was simply hot, but not at all bright. The grey atmosphere that surrounded me was so heavy, hot, dense, and stifling that I could almost reach out and grab it. […] It wasn’t at all like it is back in Peking when we have dust storms of wind-blown sand. It was rather that the light of the sun was diminished upon first entering this grey world; what was left of it was then evenly distributed so that every place received some for the light, thus creating a silver-grey world. It was a bit like the summer drought in North China when a layer of useless grey clouds floats in the sky, shading the light of the sun without at all reducing the extremely high temperature; however, the grey atmosphere here was much darker and heavier so that the weighty ashen clouds seemed glued to one’s face […] In sum the atmosphere made me feel very ill at ease. (6-7)

Even allowing for translation deficiencies (for I am not convinced, on the evidence of his introduction, that Lyell has the world’s most sensitive ear for style; the inclusion of phrases like “got into her pants” [140] and “go blow it out your ass!” [191] later in the book also feel like clangers), and even allowing for the fact that it’s probably intended to be humorously over-the-top (the narrator goes on to tell us how the land is “flat … boringly flat” in every direction), surely it’s over-egging the pudding a bit. If it’s deliberately tedious, it does its job a bit too well for my taste.

But thereafter events develop fairly briskly, if very episodically. Cat people appear from the grey, and immediately take the narrator prisoner. In his cell, he frees his hands and legs using his gun (which the cat people did not confiscate because, the narrator deduces, they are scared of metal — the narrator deduces many things about the cat people, and is always correct; but I guess that goes with the territory of this sort of novel), and is then freed from his cell by one of the cat people, with whom he runs off into the night. There’s enough time, in all this, for the narrator to explicitly compare his plight to the situations in which Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver found themselves; this certainly makes clear what sort of novel Lao She is aiming to write, but the overtness of the references surprised me slightly, even having read in Lyell’s introduction that Lao She was much-influenced by Western writers as a result of his time abroad. As expected, however, for most of the rest of the novel, the narrator is a tourist, escorted around (quite consentingly; he is generally unfazed by his surroundings) by a series of cat people who lecture him on various aspects of Cat Country’s history and society.

His liberator, Scorpion, turns out to be an opportunistic and self-centred local lord – a stand-in for the Chinese warlords of the time — whose major motive in freeing the narrator is to gain the kudos and, more importantly, the security of having a pet foreigner. Scorpion is a landlord, and a farmer of reverie leaves, which are all at once a staple food crop, the underpinning of the economy of Cat Country, and the drugs mentioned in Fenby’s summary of the book. On eating one, the narrator feels “benumbed and excited at the same time — the kind of feeling that one gets when slightly high.” As the effect becomes more intense: “every last pore in my body felt relaxed and happy enough to laugh, if pores could laugh. I no longer felt the least bit hungry or thirsty, nor did I any longer mind the dirt on my body. The mud, blood, and sweat that clung to my flesh all gave me a delicious feeling, and I felt that I should be perfectly happy if I never took another bath as long as I lived” (36). As Lyell points out in a footnote, this is an obvious analog for opium, which in the nineteenth century was imported into China by foreigners in massive quantities, despite Chinese prohibitions against it.

In Cat Country, reverie leaves were not just imported, but actually first introduced by a foreigner. This happened several hundred years ago. In short order, everybody was addicted to them, with the result that everyone become addled and idle. In response, the emperor banned the leaves; but everyone went into withdrawal, so he rescinded that order and made them the national dish, instead. Then — three centuries or so before the novel is set — there’s a chronic shortage of leaves after a terrible flood, at which point all the cat people, desperate for their fix, start stealing leaves from each other, with the full approval of the government, “for stealing is an act that most fully expresses a man’s freedom; and ‘freedom’ had, throughout their entire history, always been the highest ideal of the cat-people” (freedom meaning, naturally, “taking advantage of others; non-cooperation; creating disturbances” [43]). Eventually we discover that the whole economy is even more of a house of cards than this makes it sound, being built entirely on the ruling class’s plunder of Cat Country treasures and land: these things are sold to foreigners, and the proceeds are distributed among officials, who use the money to buy leaves. Licensing this behaviour is the anarchic political system; in place of political parties, there are political brawls (d’you see what he did there?), one of which in particular has ruined the country in ways that seem not just reflective of Lao She’s present, but grimly predictive: “the members of our Everybody Shareskyism Brawl didn’t understand economics to begin with […] when all the killing was over, everybody just stood around and stared blankly at each other. They had hoped to build the new society on a base of peasants and workers, but they didn’t have the foggiest notion of what agriculture was or what work was” (222).

Another consequence of the situation is that foreigners are both the bane and the life support of Cat Country society. They are entirely outside the law — hence the narrator’s ability to wander around pretty much as he pleases – and they know they’ve got a good thing going. When the narrator encounters other foreigners (who are, of course, also cat people; or at least, as they condescendingly explain, their ancestors were also cats), they automatically treat with him rather than with the Cat Country natives, knowing that it would be against their self-interest to fight among themselves. After the harvest, the narrator travels with Scorpion to the capital of Cat Country – called, naturally, Cat City (the total lack of imagination displayed in the naming throughout the book is, you have to assume, deliberate; the cat language is called “felinese”). Once there, he is sought out by foreigners who prove themselves to be more civil, reliable, and generally with-it than anyone else the narrator has so far met. They warn him not to let the cat people take advantage of him. “We foreigners have to look out for each other”, they explain. “To tell the truth, it’s a disgrace to Mars that a country like this should still exist. We’re so ashamed of it that we don’t even bother to treat cat-men as men at all” (111) — ashamed, but without sympathy; they feel that “the filthy habits of the natives here are past all rectification” (112), a position the narrator gradually moves towards as the novel develops and which, crucially, seems to be justified.

Cat City itself is certainly a pretty dismal place. Cat Country houses are made of mud and consist of “four walls surrounding a foul smell” (33), and Cat City embodies the same aesthetic. “As soon as I set eyes on Cat City,” the narrator relates, “a sentence took form in my mind: This civilization will soon perish!” (96). Yet in describing the place — or more accurately, in describing the behaviour of cat people en masse — Lao She produces some of the most memorable images in the book, such as this:

The arrangement of the city itself was the simplest that I had ever encountered in all my experience. There was nothing that you could really call “a street,” for other than an apparently endless line of dwellings, there was nothing but a kind of highway, or perhaps one ought to say “empty square”. If one kept in mind what the layout of a Cat Country army camp was like, one could well imagine the layout of the city: an immense open square with a row of houses down the middle, totally devoid of color and utterly drowned in cat-people. That’s all there was; this was what they called Cat City”. There were crowds of people, but one couldn’t tell exactly what they were doing. None of them walked in a straight line, and all of them got in each other’s way. Fortunately the streets were wide, and when it was no longer possible to go forward, they could switch to walking sideways as they crowded past one another. (97-8)

And this, describing how Scorpion, who at this point is carried aloft by a number of other cat people, negotiates the crowd:

With seven of them bearing Scorpion on their heads, they plunged headlong into the cat-surf! Then music was struck up. At first I thought it was a signal for the pedestrians to clear a right of way. But as soon as they heard the music, rather than shrinking back, the people all began crowding over in the direction of the reverie leaf formation until they were packed as tight as sardines in a can. I thought that it would be a miracle if Scorpion’s men ever made it through.

But Scorpion was much more capable than I had imagined. Bump-ba dump-dump-dump, bump-ba dump-dump-dump — lively as a roll of drums in a Chinese military opera, the clubs of the soldiers came down on the heads of the cat-people and a crack began to appear in the human tide. Thus the miracle of the Red Sea had been of Scorpion’s own making. Strange to say, the people’s eagerness to see what was going on was not abated one whit by the clubs, although they did fall back out of the way to open up a path. They kept on smiling at the formation. The clubs, however, didn’t stop merely because of this friendly reception, but continued with a bump-ba dump-dump-dump. By dint of careful observation, I was able to make out a difference between the city cats and the country cats: the city cats had a bald spot where a part of the skull had been replaced by a steel plate that was placed at the center of the head and also doubled as a drum — clear evidence that they had had long experience with having their heads drummed by soldiers while watching exciting public spectacles, for experience is never the product of a single, fortuitous occurrence. (101-2)

It’s still terribly long-winded (it’s very hard to quote from this novel other than in whole paragraphs), but: they have drums for heads! Is that not beautifully absurd?

Once in the city, the narrator ditches Scorpion for his rather more interesting relatives, notably Young Scorpion (see above re: naming) who explains that while his grandfather eats reverie leaves because he thinks it disgraces the foreigners who brought them, and his father eats the leaves to maintain his social status, he has to eat them because if he didn’t, he simply wouldn’t be able to deal with the mess that is Cat Country. (Ah, youth.) Young Scorpion introduces the narrator to, among other things, some Cat Country feminists (or “new women”), and the workings of the Cat Country educational system. The latter is evidently something of a hobby horse for Lao She, because he spends several chapters explaining and demonstrating how it is broken. There is a hint of the situation early in the novel, when Scorpion quotes Cat Country classics at the narrator in bizarre and non-sequiteur-ish attempts to justify his actions (a practice that was, at the time, not uncommon in China, as a footnote by Lyell reminds us), indicating a certain debasement of the value of knowledge. But in Cat City it’s taken to extremes. There are vacuous “graduation ceremonies” that take place on the first day of school, because the only reason to go to school is to gain status; pupils who literally dissect their teachers; and squabbling “young scholars”, who pose and talk in foreign languages “so that nobody understands them. They don’t understand what they’re saying themselves, but they enjoy the lively atmosphere that all those foreign sounds create” (197). And much more in that vein. It’s no surprise that, after rescuing two teachers destined for death, only to have them flee because they are unable to conceive of someone rescuing them for a reason other than wanting to kill them himself, the narrator despairs:

I wasn’t laughing at them alone, I was laughing at their whole society. Everywhere one looked in it, one found suspicion, pettiness, selfishness, and neglect. You couldn’t find an ounce of honesty, magnanimity, integrity or generosity in the entire society. In a society where principals are dissection material for their students, how could you expect a man to claim the honor of being principal? — darkness, darkness, total darkness. Was it possible that they were unaware that I had saved their lives? Very possibly, for in such a dark society, the very concept of saving another man’s life was probably unknown. I thought of Madam Ambassador and the eight little sexpots. They were probably still rotting away back there. The principal, the teacher, the professor, the ambassador’s wife, the eight little vixen — did any of them have anything worth of being called “life”? (166)

It’s passages like this, and more generally the development of the narrator, that give weight to Cat Country, and make it more than the preachy tome Lao She would have us believe that it is. Of course, it is preachy, the parallels with the China of its time transparent — at least to someone reading it now, with a knowledge of its context. Indeed, “70% education, 30% entertainment” isn’t a bad description of its content, though it’s almost certainly not the education the Chinese authorities had in mind when they established that specification. And its interest as science fiction is also largely historical, I think, though certainly echoes of its attitude towards authority can be detected in a book like Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes.

But ultimately, if there’s a single reason to read Cat Country, beyond that historical interest, it’s the narrator. From speculating, at first, on the possibility of driving Scorpion away and becoming a good leader for the cat people — forbidding them to eat the reverie leaves, and saving them from themselves — he becomes inexorably more cynical, not just about the possibility of improving the cat peoples’ situation, but, like the other foreigners, about whether they even deserve such improvement. Even before he arrives in Cat City, he has begun to lose respect for Scorpion and his ilk for seemingly inviting the abusive treatment of the foreigners; after a short stay there he, too, is regularly eating the leaves, and musing that “Cat Country was like an undertow in the ocean: get too close to it, and you’d be sucked in” (149). In its final third, the novel grows increasingly dark, and acquires more force than I would have anticipated either from Fenby’s summary or from its early chapters; and that’s because the narrator’s despair has the feel of something real, something to latch on to. Revolution and invasion bring the final doom of Cat Country; it is the end of both place and people, complete with mass graves that, like the descriptions of Everybody Shareskyism, seem chillingly familiar. Every scrap of hope, of light, is done away with by the end of Cat Country; and the narrator’s return to a China he insists is peaceful and happy — not at all like the place in which he finds himself! — turns out not to be in the least delightful, or casual. Rather it is a last, deliberate, bitter pill for the reader to swallow. It is, after all, a French spacecraft that rescues the narrator; the work of foreigners, taking him home.

Chinese Futures

The Del Rey Book of SF and Fantasy coverGiven how astonishing China’s story over the past twenty-five years has been, and the implications that story would seem to have for both China and the rest of the world, it’s perhaps slightly surprising that there is relatively little sf that deals with that country’s future in any depth. On of the best-known examples, of course, is Maureen F. McHugh’s generous China Mountain Zhang (1992), set in a twenty-second century in which Communist China is the dominant superpower. But the future looks different now than it did then, so I had a certain amount of expectation for McHugh’s “Special Economics”, published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy earlier this year. Also set in China, but rather closer to now, the story’s major speculative conceit is that a quarter of a billion people have been killed by a bird flu plague. Against that background, it tells the story of 19-year-old Jieling, who has moved from her home in Northern China to Shenzen in the South in search of a job. My expectations were more or less met: it’s a good story, perhaps a little undercut by the ease with which Jieling manages to do the sf-protagonist thing of pulling the levers of the world, but good nonetheless. One of the things that’s good about it, I think, is the deftness of its construction, which allows Jieling’s life to quietly illuminate her country.

China Shakes the World coverIn that sense, plague notwithstanding, Jieling could almost have walked out of the country drawn in James Kynge’s 2006 book, China Shakes the World: the Rise of a Hungry Nation. Kynge, who spent over two decades as a journalist in Asia for Reuters and the Financial Times, is interested in the past two or three decades, the forces that during that time have driven China’s economic and political rise, how China relates to the rest of the world, and how that may change in the near-ish future. In China Shakes the World, a broad range of facts and figures — as you’d expect, staggering comparisons are commonplace, such as the fact that between 1998 and 2004 Chongqing grew by more than the size of two Birminghams, eight times faster than Chicago’s nineteenth-century peak of growth — are orchestrated into a series of narratives, case studies that illustrate particular aspects of his argument. Some are set in China — the story of Liu Chuanzhu, founder of Legend computers and recent purchaser of IBM, is one compelling example. Jieling could be one of these: another one of China’s millions of poorly-treated, economically essential internal migrants. Some of the case studies, meanwhile, range as widely as a UK private school, a small town in Ohio, or a textile town in Italy (the sort of migrant factory seen in the recent, and superlative, film Gomorrah); perhaps most striking is the book’s opening chapter, which describes the infamous wholesale relocation of a steel plant from the Ruhr to China. But it’s the movement between the specific and the general that gives the book its distinctive and welcome fluidity.

Broadly speaking, the first half of China Shakes the World is concerned with establishing the narrative of the past; the second, with speculating about the narrative of the future. Kynge argues that China’s recent development is actually something historically new. This he puts down not just to the sheer speed of the transformation, what he describes as “the compression of developmental time” that puts skyscrapers next to huts, though that is of course daunting. It’s China’s most obvious characteristic — its size — which is, for Kynge, ultimately telling. Crucially, it enables China to simultaneously possess the characteristics of multiple countries: it has a vast workforce prepared to work for preindustrial wages and yet it also has a highly educated workforce skilled with modern technology; the result is immense productivity, but also, per the book’s subtitle, powerful hunger. Kynge’s argument that “Chinese history is very much less the story of multiplication than of long division” (48) rings true, with a tension between the number of mouths and the amount of food available to feed them having been replaced by a related-but-different tension between the number of people, and the number of jobs available to occupy them. One of the reasons Kynge’s choice of case studies ranges so wide is to demonstrate how that hunger can reach out around the world.

Kynge also describes the shape of China’s economy, and its inherently unstable aspects. Although it’s no longer accurate to describe the economy as “communist”, government policies have the effect of ensuring that almost all manufactured products are in chronic oversupply, with the result that where other nations’ companies export to expand their success, China’s companies export simply to stay afloat. One of Kynge’s contacts in China explains that the central principle of the Chinese economy is that, “when reform is too fast there is chaos. When reform is too slow there is stagnation” (178) – i.e. that although the power and legitimacy of the Communist Party springs from continued growth and total control, maintaining both is nigh-impossible; one must be sacrificed to achieve the other. The extent to which China’s internal development has been unplanned was also new to me: in Kynge’s analysis, Deng Xiaoping is notable as much for being disobeyed as for being an architect of economic reform; he gave local governments and businesses an inch, and they took a mile, which has ultimately led to the promise we’re now confronted with nearly every week, of China’s economic dominance in the century to come.

But it may not happen. Kynge gives four reasons why. The first is the environment. Kynge describes conservation as a “blind spot” for Chinese authorities, pointing to systemic failures of policy which cause immense damage, and suggests that if China’s “Green GDP” – the cost of dealing with the damage that has been done – is factored into estimates then growth has actually been more or less flat over the period of China’s miracle, rather than at 10% or more. Second, there is endemic corruption throughout the Chinese state; Kynge argues that most analyses of China’s economic potential do not take account of its underground economy, not just in its direct monetary value — which may be up to a third of the value of the mainstream economy — but in the effect it has on the value of China’s brand. He cites numerous examples of Chinese companies increasing their value by acquiring Western brands (such as Liu Chuanzhu’s takeover of IBM), rather than by exporting their own brands. Third, Kynge suggests that the “overriding contradiction” of China is simply that a communist state cannot manage a capitalist economy appropriately, leading to accumulating hidden costs, primarily in the form of bad debts and deferred insolvencies. And finally, he points to the consequences of the rest of the world’s attitude to China in recent years, speculating that Western hunger for access to Chinese markets may not, in fact, be limitless, and that Western societies could descend into resentful protectionism (because the benefits that trade with China brings are less visible than the job losses it causes). We may, in other words, yet prevent China from rising. There is, of course, the obligatory suggestion that now, when this book is being written and published, is the crucial moment (Kynge actually pinpoints the Rubicon-crossing in 2004), about which I am sceptical; but in general this is an engaging, thoughtful analysis.

As I said earlier, Jieling’s narrative has the sort of solidity found in Kynge’s case studies, and many of the factors shaping her life are factors he describes; the plague has perhaps intensified some, but it has not been transformative. In the intervention of a somewhat hapless government agent towards the end of the story, for example, “Special Economics” gestures towards the idea that Beijing’s power is ebbing, that a communist government inevitably cannot fully control a capitalist state. Moreover, although Jieling finds a job with relative ease, despite her migrant status – she is hired by a biotech company to do basic work that is “pleasantly scientific without being very difficult” (150), and serves as both macguffin and metaphor — there is a nasty catch, which is that employees at New Life (the ironically-named company) sign away their basic rights and become slaves. Among other things, living expenses, food, and uniforms are all deducted from their wages – and there are further performance-related deductions. One of the driving forces behind this is a desperate need for New Life to remain competitive in foreign markets; but the human result is that Jieling is heavily in debt by the time she receives her first pay cheque. Faced with near-impossible odds of ever paying off their rapidly accruing debt, some of Jieling’s colleagues have surrendered themselves to the company – after all, they reason, it’s not such a bad life – but Jieling, with Heinleinian resourcefulness, of course Finds A Way to pay off her debt, by dancing in the “plague-trash markets” where the possessions of bird flu victims are sold on. None of this is to disown the story’s more straightforward humanity; just to say it is not the only thing that drives it.

UFO in Her Eyes coverI could provide a similar analysis of UFO in Her Eyes, despite its garish-seeming title. The starting point for Xiaolu Guo’s fourth novel to be published in English is an event that took place in Silver Hill village on the twentieth day of the seventh moon of 2012 (as the local calendar has it). Standing in a rice field, a friendless, unmarried peasant woman named Kwok Yun saw a big silver plate in the sky, heard a strange noise, and felt a force from above tugging at her. When the moment passed, she found a foreigner – a Westerner – lying nearby, sunburned and with a wound in his leg. For fear of damaging relations between China and other nations if she does nothing, with the help of some children she takes him to her home and dresses the wound, then goes to collect some healing herbs. When she returns, however, he has vanished. After some thought, Yun realises she needs to report the incident to Chang Lee, the village chief (unfazed by, and in all honesty not entirely understanding of, the potential for first contact; she is more concerned with where dinner is coming from). Chang passes the news on up the chain; and in September, two government agents arrive in Silver Hill to investigate.

UFO in Her Eyes is the story of that investigation and what follows. It is presented, as were A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, as a series of documents: in this case, primarily transcripts of interviews conducted by the two agents, but also emails they send to and receive from their superiors, maps drawn by Chief Chang, lists of local vendors, minutes of village meetings, and other odds and ends. This makes for an appealingly magpie-ish book, as interested in assembling a collage portrait of Silver Hill from individual stories and details – the first time, I think, that Guo has used multiple first-person narrators, and she handles them pretty well – as it is concerned with establishing any one character, or the facts of the incident described above. Although UFO in Her Eyes has its own epigraphs (from Ban Gu and Milan Kundera), to return to McHugh for a moment, it strikes me as a novel that could have been written around the epigraph which China Mountain Zhang takes from Camus: “A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die.”

And Silver Hill is an emblematic place indeed. It is located, as several villagers proudly note, less than fifteen kilometres from the birthplace of Chairman Mao; as a result it was gifted with generous amounts of farm equipment — eight tractors and ten manure spreaders. But that was fifty years ago, and since Mao’s death the village seems to have dropped off the government radar. “Once we were revolutionary and progressive,” Chief Chang notes, in a careless moment of honesty, “now we are slow and backward” (7). Every trend seems to be moving against the villagers. The young think that “any big city is better than Silver Hill” (17) and leave; the youngest person interviewed by the government agents is Yun, aged 37. (Jieling, we can imagine, came from a village like Silver Hill. For her, country is axiomatically bad and city is axiomatically good; her friend’s plans to go home and get married when she pays off her debt “seemed very country”) And each year, creeping desertification makes it harder for those who remain to draw a living from the land. No wonder the villagers constantly refer to their past; no wonder many of them cite an old proverb to the effect that people must be prepared to “eat bitterness”.

In his report into the UFO incident, the lead agent – BJ1919; in one of the novel’s faintly absurd touches he, like his counterpart, HN1989, is never given a full name, although you can translate the two as “bad cop” and “good cop”, respectively, with the clichés those labels imply – provides a cautiously paranoid assessment. In the absence of a clear explanation, all nearby aerial activity should be monitored; Kwok Yun should be visited regularly; Chief Chang’s leadership should be more closely scrutinised; and, if possible, the identity of the foreigner should be determined. The last of these proves surprisingly easy – early the following year, the village receives a letter from Michael Carter, claiming to be the rescued man, thanking Yun for her kindness (he remembers her for her sloganed t-shirt: “Is This The Future?”), and offering a check for $2000 “in the hope that it will help fund your village school and any children in need” (82). Inspired, Chief Chang awards Yun a “model peasant” medal, and declares that

“For the last thirty years,” Chief Chang said, raising her hand to show everyone she was going to make an important speech, “the people of Silver Hill have eaten enough bitterness to last us to eternity! And because we are poor and uneducated, we have been unaware of what has been going on in the rest of our country, let alone in the world! Well, I can tell you that, recently, China has changed beyond recognition. Silver Hill is running far behind. It is time for us to do something!” (88)

I would be surprised if, on reading passages like this, I’m the only person reminded of Geoff Ryman’s Air (2004). That novel is not set in China, but Silver Hill and Kizuldah are the same kind of place, and Chief Chang seems cut from the same cloth as Ryman’s Chung Mae – a middle-aged woman determined to pull her village up by its bootstraps. Subsequent to the speech above, we find that as a result of Chang’s lobbying the government has awarded two million yuan to Silver Hill to make it “one of China’s ‘up to speed’ villages”, to which end a Five Year Plan has been prepared which entails investment in such things as infrastructure, a “future technology hub”, service industries, entertainment provision, and housing – and developing tourism as the village’s major growth industry, based on Yun’s “significant contribution to science” (108). The next batch of reports are transcripts of interviews carried out by Hunan Finance Officer 8 (again, no name) to document the villagers’ reactions to this incipient economic miracle, which are about as mixed as you might expect.

If Guo’s novel also has a certain amount of stylistic similarity to Ryman’s – in prose that aspires to a sort of unjudgemental innocence about its characters, in its portrayal of a living small community, in its themes of the impact of globalisation and development – it is, ultimately, rather different in temperament. Air is not uncritically optimistic, but it is, at heart, optimistic – luminously so; it is one of the book’s virtues – and, particularly in its later stages, evinces a fable-like conviction in the story being told. UFO In Her Eyes, by contrast, is a far more sceptical work. The urbanisation of Silver Hill (the characters describe it as modernisation) becomes a goal unto itself, a pursuit of something they should be whether or not it’s something they want to be, and irrespective of its worth to the village’s inhabitants. In many cases, that worth is “not much” – there are interviews with the fisherman whose pond will be destroyed, the rice farmer whose field will be replaced with a UFO memorial and restaurant, the noodle seller whose stall will be forced out of business. These are men who know no other life, who in some cases are unable to live any other life – who struggle with the transition from their “proper peasant calendar” to an “impossible city people’s Western thing” (35), who may be scarred by previous Chinese attempts at modernisation. Even when they can adapt, they may be prevented from doing so by bureaucracy or circumstance. Much is lost in the rush to progress.

Of course, Silver Hill is not a unique creation. The speed and ferocity of China’s urban boom is well documented, as are the development policies which drive it, not least by books like Kynge’s. And in sfnal terms, UFO in Her Eyes is lower-key than any of the other works I’ve mentioned here, even “Special Economics”; even in the background of Guo’s story there are no grand events, and there’s certainly no innovation as transformative as Air. Yun’s sighting remains enigmatic to the end – the UFO is never seen again – and, at least at first glance, appears to be important more for its catalytic effect on the local economy than anything else. So there is an extent to which UFO in Her Eyes could be characterised as sf in trappings only. Seeking to portray the normal life of the future is one thing – an admirable thing – and understatement is appealing, but merely placing an existing normal life in the future could be said to lack a certain vigour.

I think Guo is cannier than that, though. I don’t think it’s a stretch, in fact, to suggest that Yun’s t-shirt hangs a lantern on this very issue. To say that the book demands to be read as an exploration of that question – Is this the future? – might be taking it too far, and would in any case sound awfully ponderous for a book with as light a touch as Guo’s usually has, but the resonances that the book’s sfnal trappings raise are significant. There may or may not be any actual aliens in the story (I think there may in fact be one, hidden in the interstices of other people’s stories), but there is no shortage of alienation, from the nameless government officials, and Yun’s initial position as an outsider, to the connotations of foreigner-as-alien and how they reflect on Chang’s desire to get Silver Hill to engage with the outside world, and the silent but increasing number of deprived migrants who arrive in Silver Hill seeking the new jobs that development creates.

There are moments of bureaucratic absurdity, and moments when the remote fumbles of government have all too real consequences. The society presented is one in which “peasant” is a political designation, where by habit much is censored, or simply not reported. (“Disaster belongs to the West” [154], Chang cynically notes, in another unguarded moment.) If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover in a slim book (it is only a shade over 200 pages) then, well, it is. Guo is not a writer who paints her panoramas with detail; rather, she suggests much with a few strokes of the pen, and provokes much in the reader. The bulk of UFO in Her Eyes has a documentary coolness and sweep, which is occasionally counterpointed by vivid close-ups. Much that is troubling hides behind the carefully correct official answers, through reference to the past or gesture to the future; along with just enough sweetness to make eating the bitterness bearable, even as the first smog clouds the sky above Silver Hill.