Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fish of Lijiang

Short Story by Chen Qiufan (Text & Audio online)
Translated by Ken Liu

The Narrator is an office worker, frequent employee of the month, and on track to become Assistant Manager.
"I have a car, a house — everything a man should have, including erectile dysfunction and insomnia."
He isn't exactly happy with his life, but he likes being a workaholic. When he is diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, he only goes to the rehabilitation center/resort in Lijiang because they force him to. An interesting character development mentioned a few times but never dwelt on is that our narrator apparently used to be an artsy type, before he got into business.
Ten years ago, I had nothing and no care. Ten years ago, Lijiang was a paradise for those who liked to exile themselves from civilization. (Or, to put it less pretentiously, that was where young people who fancied themselves "artists" slept with each other.) Ten years ago, I carried everything I owned on my back (still had some muscles then).
But the ancient city isn't as he remembers it. Everything is fake. Artificially controlled sky kept a perfect blue, robot bands poorly playing traditional music. Before he can despair too much, he meets a woman, they hit it off, and before things go down the predictable woman-shows-him-the-error-of-working-too-much route, the whole story takes a Philip K. Dick-style twist. The world is more fake and less pure than even he imagines, and the government and large companies are collaborating in some very Science Fictional research.

The whole story ends up quietly depressing, much like the narrator's life. I really liked that about it. I was expecting a happy, lesson-learning sort of story, and it turns out that this story is more what you'd get if Philip K. Dick were writing in modern day China. Like a Dick story, though, there are a few too many abandoned threads, half-themes mentioned poignantly once, and never brought up again. They do all add to the feeling of the plight of the modern office worker though.

I'm glad Ken Liu took the time out from writing his own brilliant stories to write a translation of this one, and I'm very much interested in finding more translations of Chen Qiufan's work. If anyone who reads this knows of any other English translations of Chen Qiufan stories, please post a comment.

3.5 little red fish out of 5.

Originally published, in Chinese, in Science Fiction World, May 2006

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