Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

A three-fold story…

I’m delighted to say that my pick for Best Short Story for this year’s Hugo Awards – the delightfully humorous Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer – actually won! That may be the first time ever I’ve picked a bookish winner. I really regret that I never got around to reviewing my pick for Best Novelette, since it won too! Better late than never, eh? This is an intriguing story from China that uses the freedom of speculative fiction as a means to look at some of the issues in present-day Beijing – and indeed in many other cities in our increasingly overcrowded world.

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu

Hao Jingfang
Hao Jingfang

Lao Dao is a waste processing worker in crowded Beijing, in Third Space. We meet him as he hurrying to catch an old friend, before the Change begins.

People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.

Like all the people in Third Space, Lao Dao works long hours for low wages. Soon the daughter he has adopted will be old enough to go to kindergarten and Lao Dao worries about how he’ll find the money to make sure she can go to a good one. Now he’s been offered a small fortune to take a message to First Space – a journey that is prohibited to those in Third Space. So he’s looking for Peng Li, a man who has made that perilous journey before, to ask him how to get there. At first, Peng Li tries to talk him out of making the trip, but he sees that Lao Dao is determined, and he understands the lure of the money…

Then Peng Li explained the technique for entering First Space as the ground turned during the Change. He had to wait until the ground began to cleave and rise. Then, from the elevated edge, he had to swing over and scramble about fifty meters over the cross section until he reached the other side of the turning earth, climb over, and head east. There, he would find a bush that he could hold onto as the ground descended and closed up. He could then conceal himself in the bush.

And so Lao Dao sets off on his journey…

Crowded Beijing Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju
Crowded Beijing
Photo: Xinhua/Du Huaju

* * * * *

The reason for Lao Dao’s trip is to take a message from a man in Second Space to a woman he has fallen in love with in First Space. But the story is pretty much incidental, Lao Dao’s journey a device which allows the author to describe this version of Beijing that he has created. The interest of the story is all in the description so I don’t think explaining the city is a spoiler in this instance, though if you want to read the story you might prefer to do that before you read on.

It’s available to read online – here’s the link.

The basic idea is that Beijing has become so overcrowded that it has been divided in a novel way. The people of Third Space are at the bottom of the social heap – the manual workers who do the dirty work that keeps the city operational. The city is theirs for 24 out of every 48 hours. At the end of their allotted time, the Change happens – the Third Space people pack themselves into their little pods and sleep, while the city physically folds itself into new shapes…

In the early dawn, the city folded and collapsed. The skyscrapers bowed submissively like the humblest servants until their heads touched their feet; then they broke again, folded again, and twisted their necks and arms, stuffing them into the gaps. The compacted blocks that used to be the skyscrapers shuffled and assembled into dense, gigantic Rubik’s Cubes that fell into a deep slumber.

The ground then began to turn. Square by square, pieces of the earth flipped 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side. The buildings unfolded and stood up, awakening like a herd of beasts under the gray–blue sky. The island that was the city settled in the orange sunlight, spread open, and stood still as misty gray clouds roiled around it.

Then the Second Space people, the middle classes, get their turn, followed by another change to transform the bustling city into a quiet open haven for those at the top of society’s tree. The descriptions of the physical aspects of the change are excellent, but it’s the social dimension that really makes the story stand out. This isn’t really a story of the exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, in quite the way you might expect. The Third Space people not only agreed to the system but they basically built the folding city. It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources, and all the people of the city have accepted it. The First Space people take their responsibilities to the other levels seriously, trying to manipulate the economic system so that everyone has employment and earns enough, if only barely, to survive.

Crowded Beijing
Crowded Beijing

It’s an intriguing concept, very well-written and beautifully translated by Ken Liu, himself a Hugo Award-winning author. Well worthy of the award, I think, and I’m glad that, despite the troubles the Hugo Award seems to have had with nominations this year, (as discussed in my previous post and in the comments on it), both these excellent stories have come through to win.

Little Green Men rating: :mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen::mrgreen:

27 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang translated by Ken Liu

  1. Oh, that does sound intriguing, FictionFan! It sounds like the sort of story that gives readers insights into the real-life culture, too (in this case, Beijing), and I like that, too. Interesting idea, too, to explore a society in a way that doesn’t send a ‘one people exploiting another’ sort of message. Not surprised it was a Hugo winner.

    • Yes, it was good to see a story from somewhere other than the English speaking West come through in the Hugos too – sci-fi always seems to me one of the most insular of genres, but there has been a bit of a shift in that recently. And I thought NOT making it entirely a rich-exploits-poor story was refreshingly original. Good one!

    • Haha! I know – I’m very proud! 😉 Yes, I find China fascinating – so different from us in almost every way. I’d have liked to visit it too but in my travelling youth it was nearly impossible.

  2. Glad you found another one to enjoy, FF. Sadly, I don’t think this concept is my cup of tea, but the beauty is in how many books there are to choose from, right?! Ooh, and congrats on picking a winner!!

    • Yes, sci-fi – or speculative fiction – isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I do enjoy the occasional foray into it. Haha – thank you! Usually my picks bomb, so I’m thrilled to have actually picked a winner for once…

  3. This does sound quite fascinating – although a bit complicated for my simple little head! However I love Beijing, so that might tempt me in. And well done on picking a winner! You’ve got an eye for these things 😉

    • Ha! I wish I did! I’m guessing these may have been the only two decent stories this year… Yes, the city is a bit complicated, but the author explains it much better than I did! Which is just as well really… 😉

  4. This story made me think of the racial and economic divides we see in the U.S. that keeps people from actually seeing one another. You cross a line in some cities, and everything is different. You can go to places that look like slums, head a few blocks over, and it’s all luxury, if you dare go over–I’ve heard this is especially noticeable in New Orleans. People don’t often mix economically or racially “thanks” to things like neighborhood watch and suspicious eyes.

    • Yes, that’s very true – it did have that kind of feeling about it. We have the same issue in big cities here, especially London. But even in Glasgow, which historically wasn’t very diverse, we’ve now got growing divides with areas that are very much exclusively pockets of one ethnicity. And we always had a big divide between the very wealthy and the poor, and that’s got worse if anything, I think. But I think young people still mix a fair amount at school and uni, and in social life – except for those at the extreme ends of rich/poor. I hope so anyway!

        • How intriguing! Can’t be a case of one copying the other, I don’t think. The story must have been written at least three years ago, but wouldn’t have been available in English until too late for the film. There’s hardly ever a truly original idea in sci-fi though – maybe they’re both derived from some older story I haven’t read…

  5. A wonderful story: I really enjoyed it on lots of levels. Thanks for the review and link. China Miéville’s The City & the City also has a setting of two cities sharing one location; however, there the separation is perceptual rather than physical.

    • So glad you enjoyed it – isn’t it great? I thought the translation was excellent too – makes all the difference. I was a bit put off Miéville by starting with his recent book of short stories, but several people have told me to try ones of his novels. I shall add The City & The City to the list – it is certainly an intriguing premise…

  6. A good review, but I have to disagree with part of it.

    It seemed to be an answer to the problems of overcrowding and lack of resources

    This dystopic story is not about lack of resources, it is an economics-centered story about too many people and not enough demand for their labor, due to automation and logistics. The author references the Phillips curve, a concept in economics that plots the unemployment rate against the rate of inflation. The government “solves” the problem by shunting the fifty million people in Third Space into a ghetto in space and time, where they separate recyclable materials from the garbage that comes from First and Second Space. They are awake for only ten hours in every 48-hour period, while First Space people get 24 hours and Second Space 14 hours.

    Even this precarious existence is under threat as a high-ranking official in First Space comes up with a scheme to extract recyclables using technology, which would make the bottom-dwellers altogether redundant. For now, the top official in First Space nixes the scheme, but the relentless logic of ever-greater efficiency means that eventually, there will be no economic reason left for the people in Third Space to exist. A bleak prospect.

    • Interesting analysis – thanks! I don’t think we significantly disagree – my point was merely that this was a solution that the poor had not only agreed to but had in fact facilitated – as if the animals in a zoo had built their own cages. And, while I see that a dystopian viewpoint would mean that eventually those arguing for technology over people would win, that’s not how it plays out within the confines of this story, if I remember correctly – it’s a while since I read it. My point, if I had one, is that the First Spacers were giving serious thought to the issues, rather than simply dismissing the other residents of the city. But on the whole I try not to over-analyse in these brief reviews, since their purpose is merely to entertain and to hopefully tempt readers to click through and read the story.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

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