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.
Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang
translated by Ken Liu
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…
* * * * *
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.
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.