July 7th, 2016

Novelette: "Folding Beijing"

“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu, is on the Rabid Puppies slate, but it also seems to be a popular story in its own right.  There are other popular stories on the slate as well, in an attempt, I think, to confuse Hugo voters.  Apparently we’re supposed to react like Harcourt Mudd’s robots in Star Trek: — “But it’s a Puppy choice! — But I like it! — But it’s a Puppy choice!” — and then our logic circuits overheat and our brains shut down.

Fortunately we’re not robots but people who can figure things out for ourselves.  If you liked the story, then I say Go for it, put it on your ballot.  The Rabid Puppies will of course take credit if the story wins, but I don’t see that that matters very much.

Beijing has been turned into a city that folds in on itself and then “flip[s] 180 degrees around an axis, revealing the buildings on the other side.”  One side is First Space, and the other side is shared by Second Space and Third Space.

Lao Dao lives in Third Space, the poorest and most crowded of the three.  He’s just getting by as a waste worker, processing the scraps that come from First and Second Space.  He’s constantly hungry, and now that he has a child he desperately needs more money for her education.  Because of this, when he finds a note in a bottle from someone in Second Space, he takes a risk and goes to meet him.

All three spaces are described in terrific detail.  (This is especially impressive given how impossible the whole set-up is.)  Lao Dao’s reaction to the comparatively richer and more expansive Second Space, and to the luxury of First Space, is like that of a fairy-tale character on a visit to a fantastic hidden world.  Lurking behind the action is a commentary on the great division between the Haves and Have-nots, but it never overwhelms the story.

I enjoyed the tours through the three spaces, seeing them in all their complexity, and I liked Lao Dao, but I had some problems with the story itself.  In the beginning Lao Dao hurries to visit someone named Peng Li and becomes anxious when he’s not at home.  Starting with Peng Li in this way makes it seem as if he’ll be an important character,  but in fact Lao Dao only wants to ask him how to get to First Space and Peng Li never shows up again.

Then, because the action opens in the middle, the author has to backtrack and explain a great deal: how the folding city works, why Lao Dao went to Second Space, what he found in there, and why he wants to go to First Space.  It’s always possible that “Folding Beijing” is folded in his way to reflect the city itself, but it still seems a confusing way to tell a story.

In addition to this there are a lot of point of view shifts, where you’re following one person’s thoughts and suddenly find yourself in the middle of someone else’s.  And although the writing is clear and straightforward and the translation is up to Ken Liu’s usual fine standards, I had to wonder about this sentence, which seems to be about musical hairspray: “He closed his eyes and frowned as the mist of hairspray settled around his face, whistling all the while.”

Despite this, I liked the story a lot, though I’m not sure if I’ll put in on my ballot.  But I do know that my final decision won’t have anything to do with Puppies.