Monday, May 26, 2014

The Single Best Story You Won't Read This Year


This is the last of four reviews which appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction.  I don't do many short fiction reviews these days because I have so many other things I have to write.  So when I actually do write such a review it's because I was particularly moved by the story.

If you’ve never been stranded in Beijing Capitol International Airport and tried in vain to derive some aid from the signage, you can’t have a proper appreciation for how hard it must be to translate Chinese into English.  So major props are due to Nicky Harman and Pang Zhaoxia for rendering Zhao Haihong’s “1923 – a fantasy” into a prose so lithe and graceful that it reads as if it had been written in our own language.  This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that Ms. Zhao’s story is a wonderful construct, vivid and nuanced, that shifts effortlessly between modes of storytelling.

Here’s a sample of the mingled art of the writer and her translators.  A Kuomintang operative, a woman with her hair cut mannishly short, enters a nightclub:

. . . Bubbles was greeted by the hostess, who patted her coquettishly on the chest, pushing a white rose into the breast-pocket of her Sun Yat-sen jacket as she did so.  “Good evening, Sir...”
        The Hostess’s words were no sooner out of her mouth than she flinched, her fingers fluttering from Bubbles’ chest like a startled bird.  The corners of Bubbles’ mouth twitched in a smile, which allayed the hostess’s surprise.
        “I’m looking for someone,” Bubbles announced calmly, and slipped into the brightly-coloured world of the club’s interior, crowded with customers cruising in the glittering, night-time waves of light like brilliant tropical fish.  Bubbles melted into the pool of colours, with a flick of her tail as it were, almost giving my imagination the slip.

There are four main characters in this story:  Bubbles, the revolutionary; Jia Su, who is trying to invent a machine that will store memories – or possibly dreams – in water; Meiying, forced by poverty to work as a dance hostess at the nightclub; and the narrator whom Bubbles almost evades.  This last, unnamed person is Zhao’s best invention, the consciousness in which the story is created and yet one who performs a few crucial actions while revealing nothing about the person making them – not even the gender.

The plot is relatively simple.  The narrator finds a box that belonged to his or her great-grandmother (Meiying), containing biographical information about her husband (Jia Su), and two bottles of an unknown liquid.  The written material includes the enigmatic datum that in 1925, the “aqua-dream machine” that Jia Su was working on failed.  What interests the narrator most, however, is family lore that the great-grandfather had once provided shelter to a revolutionary.  The opening of the story, and subsequent segments set in 1923, are the narrator’s imaginative re-creations of the past.

The past, however, is not only a foreign country but one in which we have little influence.  After evoking the nightclub scene (and admitting that the re-creation may be too heavily influenced by classic movie star Brigitte Lin), the narrator is unable to create a romance between Jia Su and Bubbles.  The past is as it was.  The characters go off to their varied fates.  The narrator is left to make sense of it all.

Structurally, the story is a marvel of deftness.  It darts back and forth in time and ends more or less where it begins, with a deepened understanding and a clearer picture of what the imagination can and cannot impose upon what has been.  The narrative is vividly real and yet floats weightlessly in the mind.  “1923 – a fantasy” is every bit as marvelous a machine as the device Jia Su dedicated years of his life to.

It is worth noting that for several decades science fiction was effectively banned in China as a distraction from the serious business of nation-building.  More recently, officialdom has recognized the value of SF as a means of encouraging creative thinking in generation that will need it in the coming years, if their nation is to thrive.  “China in the twenties did not need an aqua-dream machine,” the narrator observes near the end of this tale.  But perhaps now its time has come.           

“1923 – a fantasy” appeared in the Spring & Autumn 2012 special issue (“Chinese Science Fiction: Late Qing and the Contemporary”) of Renditions, a magazine of translations from Chinese to English published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  Which means that, unless you chance upon the Columbia University Press reissue of the magazine as a stand-alone book which is rumored to be forthcoming, you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to read it.  I have told you of its existence simply so that you may know that such marvels exist in the world.

Above:  I couldn't find a copy of the photo of Brigitte Lin looking exactly like Bubbles which appeared in Renditions, so you get the cover of the magazine itself instead.


David Stone said...

I think I have this in a yearly best-of Chinese SF anthology... in Chinese. I have religiously collected these over the years, but have only read a small portion of the stories. Reading this review induces much guilt.

On a side note, is it impossible that someone could buy and reprint the translation?

Michael Swanwick said...

Not impossible at all. But since it wasn't picked up by one of the year's best volumes and most anthologists won't be aware or the existence of RENDITIONS or that it did a science fiction themed issue, I thought it important to bring this story to wider attention.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Though it's actually from 2012, I suspect this is the best story I won't read for some time:

If only I read Chinese... To be optimistic, Ken Liu seems to be translating a bit of Chinese SF into English these days, so perhaps there's hope.