Anjie Zheng reviews Touchable Unreality
Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature, predicted in 1903 that science fiction would play a major role in the advancement of China. It took a century, but that moment has arrived. While science fiction in China was restricted mainly to political purposes after 1949, it has achieved a literary life of its own in recent years.
A new bilingual anthology makes this genre even more available to global readers, thanks to the sparse, expressive translations of Ken Liu, Carmen Yiling Yan, Nick Stember, and John Chu. Touchable Unreality features some of China’s most beloved contemporary science fiction authors, including Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, the only Chinese authors to have won the Hugo Award, the highest honor in science fiction and fantasy writing.
The nine stories present worlds of the not-so-distant future. They are populated with nanosensors, robots and machines – described in such crisp detail that superfans will be debating their plausibility in online forums – that fundamentally alter the ways in which we live and interact with each other.
The gadgets don’t take center stage though. At the core of these stories are distinctly human motivations: fear, ambition, love. Technology is used by marketers to manipulate our desires, by governments to surveil us, by lovers to remember their loves. Technology doesn’t make us do things terrible or lovely to each other – that blame falls squarely on us.
The story that, at first blush, looks most familiar is “Coming of the Light,” by Chen Qiufan. In it, a marketer of a smartphone application has monks consecrate the app, convincing users that it can cure cancer, lead them to conceive or win the lottery. Pretty soon, the app, Buddhagram, actually delivers on it its larger-than-life promises.
The app is able to do this because everything in this universe consists of code that can be manipulated by algorithms. Not only can apps be reprogrammed to perform miracles, but so can people’s destinies. Their lives are not their own; they’re mere pawns in this Matrix-like world. The author, himself a marketer who has worked at Google and Baidu, is at ease exploring a world where personal technology takes on holy significance.
Another story that is close-to-home for a country exploring facial recognition and social checks is “Security Check” by Han Song. In the story, set in New York City, everyone is meticulously checked before boarding the subway. The checks are so strict that the narrator is unable to sneak in a gift intended for his wife.
The subsequent dissolution of his marriage and his frustration leads him to migrate to China, “the world’s most secure country.” There, he discovers that the world’s biggest conglomerates, Huawei-Alibaba-ICBC Conglomerate and the Tencent-Baidu-Xiaomi-ZTE Corporation, designed the security system in America.
It’s not because there’s a war (either trade or traditional) raging between the two countries. The reason for the hyper-strict security is that the galaxy is one giant security machine and the Earth is passing through a checkpoint. (Here’s where it pays for readers to put down the newspapers and not read too much political significance into such stories).
Besides mystical apps, there are also robots and virtual reality players that carry out impressive tasks. LW31, a “domestic model robot,” has looked after the eponymous Mrs. Griffin since her birth in the story “Mrs. Griffin Prepares to Commit Suicide Tonight” by A Que. Mrs. Griffin is distraught that everyone who has loved her has died and is determined to end her life. LW31 dutifully answers its master’s questions on how best to go. In doing so, Mrs. Griffin realizes that there is still one other in the world who loves her.
Love, this time for a revered actress, also drives “Preserve Her Memory” by Bao Shu. When a jilted actress throws herself off the side of a building, a devoted fan edits the actress’s recorded memories. (A chip embedded in her brain and nanosensors in the blood record the actress’s emotions and thoughts). Her plummet to death can then be re-experienced by others wearing a virtual-reality helmet. The recording is sold to the public. The edited memories reshape public opinion of the actress and eventually leads to another death.
In these and other tales, unconstrained, commercial uses of technology can have terrible consequences. In Pan Haitian’s “The Hunger Tower,” it’s a failure of technology (a malfunctioning vessel) that strands a vessel. The group must commit horrific acts to survive in a desert wasteland.
In “Ether,” speech is restrained and censors scrub the internet of anything that may incite debate, replacing “Senatorial Luncheon” with “KFC Super Value Lunch,” for example. “The tragedy is that most people never realized what had happened,” author Zhang Ran writes. “They only pessimistically believed that the spirit of liberty was gradually disappearing on the internet – exactly what the government wanted.” The everyman protagonist, who is also dealing with the childhood trauma of an abusive father, lives a colorless life. That is until one day, he finds some form of humanity in a secret group that communicates by writing characters on each others’ palms.
But this anthology is no “Black Mirror.” Two stories near the end are not about the destructive possibilities of technology, but about how it can bring family closer together.
Hao Jingfang’s “Summer at Grandma’s House” explores themes of personal destiny. The young, directionless protagonist spends a summer with his scientist grandma, and in the process learns to accept himself. “Maybe accepting reality is just another name for staying true to yourself. Who are you, really, other than the sum of everything that’s happened?” Hao writes. It’s quieter, more intimate than “Folding Beijing,” her short story that won the Hugo in 2016, depicting a sprawling metropolis separated by economic levels that rise from the ground in intervals.
The final story comes from Liu Cixin, whose Three-Body Problem won over foreign audiences via Ken Liu’s 2014 translation. In “Yuanyuan’s Bubbles,” a father and his brilliant inventor daughter. When she invents a liquid to make a huge bubble, she gifts it to him, the mayor of a dry, barren town. Together, they use the superbubbles to trap air moisture in one corner of the country and divert it to the barren town, where it pops and delivers rain.
Chinese science fiction is often interpreted as allegory of an authoritarian regime. And while Chinese authors have written overtly political stories with overtly critical intentions, that’s not always the case. Assuming so robs the reader of the pleasure of reading these rich stories in their own right. Modern day China is filled with strange things that were pipe dreams a few decades ago – skyscrapers and stadiums and bullet trains. This is rich fodder for the imagination.
As Ken Liu writes in the introduction to the 2016 anthology Invisible Planets: “Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”
While sometimes bleak, the stories are always imaginative and often glorious. They encourage readers to power down the laptop, put aside the glowing smartphone, and entertain the question, “What if?” ∎