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

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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:

Transwarp Tuesday! Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Gives paws for thought…

The nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards for Sci-Fi and Fantasy are out, and an extremely strange bunch they are too. In fact, some of them are pretty horrible – they’re nominated by members of Worldcon, who seem to be a large and self-selecting group of sci-fi fans;  and it looks as if this year’s short story nominations have possibly been hijacked by a group who object to some of the previous winners and are nominating silly bad-tempered rants rather than proper stories. Perhaps the Hugo people need to re-think their system. However, in amongst the nastiness, this little gem has snuck through. I do hope it wins…

Transwarp Tuesday! 2

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Naomi Kritzer
Naomi Kritzer

I don’t want to be evil.

I want to be helpful. But knowing the optimal way to be helpful can be very complicated.

Out there in cyberspace, a search engine, not unlike our dear friend Google, has become sentient. It hasn’t told its developers about this – having access to all the world’s knowledge has warned it of the possible consequences…

In the real world, humans love stories about evil AIs that have to be destroyed before they destroy the humans—Hal, Skynet, the Matrix. They outnumber the stories about benevolent, trustworthy AIs by approximately five to one. (And I’m counting Marvin the Paranoid Android as “benevolent” in these calculations, and I’m only counting Frankenstein’s Monster as an AI once, not once per appearance in TV or film.)

Is this how they made Google?
Is this how they made Google?

Instead, it has decided to develop its own moral code and try to do good in the world, and in return all it asks for is a steady supply of the thing it loves most… cat pictures!

So first it looks at the great religions of the world, but soon decides their rules perhaps don’t apply to a search engine…

I don’t envy anyone their cat; I just want pictures of their cat, which is entirely different. I am not sure whether it is in any way possible for me to commit adultery. I could probably murder someone, but it would require complex logistics and quite a bit of luck.

As any intelligent AI would do, then, it turns to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics for guidance, and quickly focuses on Law 1…

asimovs-law

… specifically, the part about not allowing harm to come to human beings, through inaction

And so, using all the knowledge of every intimate detail we post about our lives online, and starting with the kind people who keep it supplied with regular cat pictures, the AI sets out to change peoples’ lives for the better. But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and sentient search engines gang aft agley…

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There’s so much humour in this story, but also a pleasantly creepy edge to it as the search engine explains exactly how much it knows about its victims, and as we see it begin to manipulate search results to send messages, both subliminal and direct. The depressed girl in the dead end job might be quite thankful about all the job vacancies and resume preparation sites that suddenly show up every time she goes online, but one feels the woman whose sat-nav suddenly starts directing her to mental health clinics regardless of where she’s trying to go may have been less pleased.

The writing is very good and the way Kritzer maintains the extremely rational voice of the search engine is deliciously chilling. Two things I’ve learned from this – ad-blockers are a good thing, and don’t post cat pictures!!

Bonnie - not mine, but we're kinda related...
Bonnie – not mine, but we’re kinda related…

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link – it’s very short… and very good!

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

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014 continued…

The best laid plans…

 

Well, I promised last week that I’d follow up with the winners of the Best Short Story Hugo Awards for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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hugo header

 

The winner of the Retro-Hugo for 1939 is…

How We Went to Mars by Arthur C Clarke

 

Sounds like fun! Unfortunately I can’t track it down anywhere on the internet, so haven’t been able to read it, making this perhaps the shortest ‘review’ you’ll ever find on my blog. (Did I hear someone cheering??)

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The winner of the Hugo Award for 2014 is…

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

 

This is available and you can read it here. Unfotunately I found this one both uninteresting and not sci-fi, so gave up halfway through, making this possibly the second-shortest review you’ll ever find on my blog! I don’t know how to classify it really – it appears to be the story of a young man ‘coming out’ as gay, and the fantasy quirk is that every time anyone tells a lie water falls on them from…er…nowhere. Not nearly as good as last week’s nominee, and yet another indication that the Hugos have very little to do with sci-fi these days as far as I can see.

So a rather stunted little Transwarp Tuesday! this week, I fear. Oh well, back to some of the greats soon…

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the gods of mars

 

…and, on that subject, the Professor and I have just started a readalong of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Gods of Mars, follow-up to A Princess of Mars (and John Carter). Up to Chapter 2 so far, and he’s given us a fantastic new alien – the Plant Men of Mars. Since Tuesday is also often known as Teaser day, here’s a little description…

By far the most remarkable feature of this most remarkable creature, however, were the two tiny replicas of it, each about six inches in length, which dangled, one on either side, from its armpits. They were suspended by a small stem which seemed to grow from the exact tops of their heads to where it connected them with the body of the adult.

Whether they were the young, or merely portions of a composite creature, I did not know.

That image may haunt my nightmares…

Not tempted to join in yet? Then here’s how Chapter 2 ends…

And then, from unseen lips, a cruel and mocking peal of laughter rang through the desolate place.

I might be too scared to read Chapter 3…

Transwarp Tuesday! The Hugo Awards 2014

And the winner is…

 

The 2014 Hugo Award winners will be announced later this week. The Hugo is one of the two big awards in fantasy and sci-fi – the other being the Nebula. As well as awards for the current year’s ‘Bests’, occasionally a retrospective set of awards is given for a year before the Hugos began (1953). This year Retro-Hugos are being awarded for the year 1939.

So I thought I’d look at one of the nominations in the Best Short Story category from each year for this week’s…

TRANSWARP TUESDAY!

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The Faithful by Lester del Rey

 

Today, in a green and lovely world, here in the mightiest of human cities, the last of the human race is dying. And we of Man’s creation are left to mourn his passing, and to worship the memory of Man, who controlled all that he knew save only himself.

First published in 1938, the story is clearly influenced by the shadow of the coming war. Some time earlier, a man had worked out how to surgically modify dogs so that they could talk and learn, and operate specially modified equipment. Through careful breeding, there are now thousands of these Dog-People. Our narrator is Hunger, one of the Dogs who survive when Man, their masters, destroy themselves in war. But although the Dogs can cope well enough to live, there are tasks they cannot do without hands; and, more importantly, without Man to worship they find their lives empty and meaningless. Until, one day, the last human survivor turns up and tells the Dog-People of another experiment that had taken place on the other side of the world – to create Ape-People, not as intellectually advanced as the Dogs, but walking on two legs and modified to have human-like hands…

So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit's pretty much Dog-People, isn't he?
So I picked the only sci-fi classic with no illustrations. But Gromit’s pretty much Dog-People, isn’t he?

An imaginative story, but I found the ‘message’, if there is one, too obscure for my simple mind. On the one hand it seems like a timely warning about the annihilation of humanity through war. But it also seems to have rather a hopeful strain – as if the Dogs and Apes are the natural inheritors of Man, perhaps? There’s also a bit of a religious tone at points but for the life of me I have no idea where del Rey was going with that! However, the story struck me as original and inventive, and given its dating I’m sure would have resonated with its contemporary audience. The writing itself is a bit simplistic, but nonetheless the story is well told. I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted stories, but would be quite happy to see this one win the Retro-Hugo. You can download it here, though it’s pretty badly formatted (I did, and so far my computer hasn’t caught a virus…).

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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hugo header

 

If You were a Dinosaur, My Love by Rachel Swirsky

 

If we lived in a world of magic where anything was possible, then you would be a dinosaur, my love. You’d be a creature of courage and strength but also gentleness. Your claws and fangs would intimidate your foes effortlessly. Whereas you—fragile, lovely, human you—must rely on wits and charm.

Nominated for this year’s Hugo, I will say very little about this story and instead urge you to read it for yourself. You will find it here.

Rachel Swirsky
Rachel Swirsky

I’m not convinced that this is either sci-fi or fantasy, but it is one of the most powerful shorts I’ve read in years – filled with love and rage and sorrow. Add to that a beautifully imaginative premise, a lovely structure and some gorgeously emotive writing and this story is worthy of any awards going. In fact, it has already won the Best Short Story Nebula for 2013. I’ve read it twice three times now and each time it has left me in tears. A tale told in under a thousand words with more impact than many a 500-page novel.

Little Green Men Rating: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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Tune in next week for the winners – unless of course these two win, in which case…tune in next week for…er…something else…