This celebration of Chinese Science Fiction — thirteen stories, all translated for the first time into English — represents a unique exploration of the nation's speculative fiction from the late 20th century onwards, curated and translated by critically acclaimed writer and essayist Xueting Christine Ni.
From the renowned Jiang Bo's 'Starship: Library' to Regina Kanyu Wang's 'The Tide of Moon City', and Anna Wu's 'Meisje met de Parel', this is a collection for all fans of great fiction.
Award winners, bestsellers, screenwriters, playwrights, philosophers, university lecturers and computer programmers, these thirteen writers represent the breadth of Chinese SF, from new to old: Gu Shi, Han Song, Hao Jingfang, Nian Yu, Wang Jinkang, Zhao Haihong, Tang Fei, Ma Boyong, Anna Wu, A Que, Bao Shu, Regina Kanyu Wang and Jiang Bo.
This is a terrific anthology of Chinese science fiction stories. I loved Han Song's "Tombs of the Universe" here, but every story's a gem! – Lavie Tidhar
"This is science fiction from another culture, another history – another world. And full of gems."– Stephen Baxter
"The masterful result validates Xueting's endeavour – and will only whet readers' appetite for more translations."– Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Sinopticon is an engaging brew of unsettling ideas and lively prose."– ParSec Magazine
最终档案 ("The Last Save"), by Gu Shi
1. Real Choices
Jerry Xu stands in front of the washing liquid in the supermarket, racking his brains, trying to remember which brand his wife Lili had told him to get. Was it Camilla's or Miranda's?
He'd bought the wrong brand already: they'd already had a huge row about it, so he had no choice but to delete the whole afternoon, return to the shops and start again.
Thinking back, all he remembers is Lili's hysterical screaming face, but the things she'd said seem to have faded into the primal mist of memory.
A staff member walks past, and he asks, "Which washing liquid's the best to get?"
"Camilla's, of course," she replies without hesitation. "Believe me, sir, if you make any other choice, you'll be deleting your file and coming right back here before you know it."
Jerry picks up the recommended brand and puts it in his trolley. He doesn't say another word to the assistant: she'd just mentioned the word he hates most. Choice. It means the possibility of repeating his existence again and again, to correct every single mistake.
When he gets to the frozen section, he suddenly remembers he hasn't saved his memory. Stopping abruptly, he slaps his right hand onto his left wrist.
"Save—12 July 2301—5.21.37pm—file no. 32031—confirm."
While saving, Jerry skims the plethora of earlier records on virtual screens stimmed directly into the eye. All are arranged by year, then month, then day. Because he'd collected so many, Jerry often starts to wonder how he should choose. Perhaps this is the only real choice: any other decision can be undone and repeated endlessly.
To start again is actually an extremely loathsome thing.
He releases his fingers, and the reality in front of him fades back into view. On his left, a woman suddenly cries out, "Iforgottofeedthebaby." Her rapid speech squashes all her words into a single incoherent outpouring, and just as rapidly, she simply stops existing. Clearly, she has chosen a past save and deleted herself from this one.
Jerry sighs. This is unsettling. It's the second time he's seen this woman. Last time he went shopping, he'd seen her do exactly the same thing: now the whole scene feels like a curse, because he doesn't know if he's bought the right washing liquid.
And he's got a bad feeling about it.
2. Time and Space
Walking to his car, Jerry's ears are filled with all kinds of commercials blaring from the streets. Of course, most of them are for Time Axis. As the pioneer in the market of recording life memories, this company had transformed the lives of all humanity. As early as primary school, children are taught the theory behind "Time Axis" technology, with the aid of free-of-charge Save Space—courtesy of Time Axis.
At the end of each term, the teachers would request all students who failed to attain full marks in their exams go back and re-take them, but young Jerry Xu was an eccentric child. He refused, and challenged the teacher with the rebuttal: if we make multiple copies of everybody's world, wouldn't this cause chaos one day?
The teacher didn't have a satisfactory reply. "Of course not. We have an enormous Save Space, big enough to create a world for every single human being. Believe me, child, every world is unique."
In the end, Jerry Xu insisted on not altering his exam answers. But looking back now, such obstinacy was pointless. He would always have to choose, again and again—correcting his mistakes, correcting all contradictions—to attain a perfect life.
He stops his car in front of the red traffic light. It is bliss. He doesn't have to choose whether to continue or to stop.
A sudden blast of loud music from the broadcast makes his heart skip a beat. He switches the channel, but a feeling of unrest spreads out from his gut, and he wants to run away.
What are you afraid of? he asks himself. No matter what happens, you can always start again.
He's going insane. Good god!
Of course, before he loses his mind (or even afterwards) he could always go back to the before, and start again.
The red light gives way to green, and Jerry puts his foot on the pedal, but looks back out of habit. "This is the Incisive New Critique Show, collecting wisdom from the people," a female voice announces on the broadcast. "Let's have a look at this message—wow, it's talking about the concept of time and space, it's really interesting…"
A commercial interjects. "As technology advances, time has become elastic—distance is no longer indicated in terms of actual measurements of length, but of time: it's only an hour from Beijing to New York! All the geographical obstacles have disappeared, and we can now reach any corner of the world at the drop of a hat." But I don't want to go anywhere, Jerry Xu thinks. "Although the direction of time is singular, and strictly speaking it's impossible to 'start afresh', parallel dimension information technology can now open another world, making it possible to 'travel back' from the future, by reloading the past that has been saved. This is why," continues the broadcast, "you can only read past files that have been saved! Everything beyond that saving point will have disappeared, and you will never be able to return to this 'present'.
Thus, time is now measured in space, or as the salesmen call it—the Save Space. The Save Space is capable of storing all the data from an individual's life up to the moment they hit save, even the world in which they existed. Do you need to purchase more Save Space?" Jerry joins in with the jingle, mouthing perfectly over the female voice, "Live your life the perfect way, call Time Axis, yesterday, dial 1111-111."
The regular music is back and in full swing as Jerry stops the car and lets out a deep breath. The sight before him isn't unfamiliar, but it takes a moment for his mind to bring up the idea that this is his home. He switches off the car engine. All music, engine noise, and electric hum come abruptly to a stop. He immerses himself in this temporary calm, and suddenly feels exhausted. He is thirty years old, but he knows that the time he has experienced is far beyond three decades. He has repeatedly done many things—he has entered the Gaokao many times, looked for a job many times, started over with many girlfriends—until he had qualifications, a career, money, power, and Lili Wen: the love of his life. However, as they enter their sixth year of marriage (or the tenth if repeated time is taken into account)—he is once again unsure about everything.
Maybe he has made the wrong choice? This terrifying thought resounds in Jerry's mind. Or perhaps he could go back to when he was twenty-four, and choose someone else.
He loathes the idea: it makes him physically nauseous—he is not going to start again.
He has bought the right washing liquid, and she is going to be pleased.
He scrutinizes himself in the rear view mirror, and puts on a confident smile. He is going to open the door, embrace her, kiss her, and everything will be better.
He gets out the car, pushes open the front door, and walks into the living room with his bag of shopping. "Darling, I picked up the—"
He stops midsentence.
She isn't there. She's not at home.
Suddenly Jerry is panic-stricken. Every time she's not there when he comes home, he panics.
"I'll be here for you, every day, darling." That's what she had said.
Maybe she's just out walking the dog, he thinks, taking deep breaths, and then sitting down. She must have gone out dog walking. He calls out tentatively "Alpha?"—that's the name of that bloody German shepherd dog. Ever since he appeared, Lili has only had affectionate strokes and kisses for him; it's like the dog is her husband. But the furry thing does not run over, wagging its tail to answer his call as usual.
"Yep, see? She's out walking that bloody dog!" Jerry grumbles, putting the food into the fridge and then the washing liquid in the most obvious place, observing his handiwork with satisfaction.
The last time, she was standing right here. Jerry suddenly recalls the icy look on Lili's face as she cast him a perfunctory glance. All he could do was put the shopping away himself, but when he took out the washing liquid, she began to scream.
"You bought Camilla's? Again?' she shouted, stamping her foot and viciously hurling the bottle on the floor. "I have told you a hundred thousand times, I hate the smell of that stuff!"
Oh god, when his memory finally serves him up this scene, he cups his head in his hands. He's got it wrong. Again.
3. Lonely Worlds
Jerry sits late into the night waiting. It's eleven and Lili still hasn't come home. He considers calling the police, but he already knows what their response will be. "Well, sir, your first port of call should be Time Axis. Your wife may have just gone to another Save Space, nothing to be alarmed about, is it?"
Of course, he could save just before calling the police. If he felt too embarrassed by their response, he could come back to this moment, and start again.
He's been here before. Last time, the person who vanished was his father. He watched him disappear right before his eyes ("oh god I forgot to switch off the light"), never to re-appear again. He was seven then. He has never seen his mother. Seven-year-old Jerry called the police, crying as he spoke on the phone: "What if he doesn't come back?"
"Oh, don't worry, kid, you'll soon learn to live alone."
Jerry did learn to grow up alone, like most other children. He quickly learned that there wasn't anyone who you could keep around for long: they would always suddenly disappear. Sometimes Jerry would rather start all over again, so he could find them—and keep them. Return to the past and ask them—even beg them—not to leave his world.
But he couldn't make such demands on others, not when he himself often chooses to reload a Save because he'd forgotten his keys, or got his wallet stolen, or for no reason whatsoever. Simply because he's in a bad mood, and wanted to abandon one world and enter another. After all these years, he's finally understood that everyone he meets in this world is a chance meeting. They could very possibly disappear in an instant, never to be found again. Of course, he could always return to the past, return to their side, and then fearfully wait for their departure.
He is beginning to fear that he is, in fact, alone in this world, and that no matter which Save he returns to, there would only ever be just him.
On the first day he met Lili, he decided to marry her—even though she isn't pretty, has a bad temper, doesn't do the housework, and has no idea how to make a living. She doesn't even want to have his children, but it still fills him with joy to be with her, because she doesn't have a Time Axis account. She said she doesn't believe in starting over: she just wants to live once, and once was enough.
He cherished, loved and adored her, knowing that as long as he doesn't return to the Saves before they met, she would always be here, in this world—she would always be here for him, every day.
But now she is not here for him.
She's gone she's gone she's gone.
I'm going crazy, I'm literally losing my mind, he thinks furiously. It was clearly his mistake in choosing to reload: it was him who should have disappeared. Why not return to that ancient Save, and marry his gorgeous, dynamic ex, Rosie? He'd felt like he'd really traded down to go for Lili instead, but now she's walked out on him! This is simply preposterous! Jerry dials up the Save, and is a moment away from confirming the reload, but stops at the last second. No, he can't do this. What if, after returning to that time, he never finds Lili again?
He can't lose her, he can't bear it.
He doesn't want to start over again.
He doesn't want to—choose.
4. Countless Rejections
"…is happiness, of course. The existence of Time Axis is precisely to make everyone happy."
It's midnight, and the broadcast is showing a repeat of the interview with Styme, their CEO.
With his body sunk into the sofa, Jerry stares vacantly at the virtual screen. Lili still hasn't returned. He has rung the police and got the reply he'd expected.
"Yes, an old Chinese proverb goes, 'there's no pill in this world for curing regret', but that's precisely what we're here to change." On TV, Styme re-arranges his paunch, and asks softly, "Are you having regrets? Then go back to the past. You don't know what to choose? Don't be scared, you can try out every path, every crossroad in your entire life. Isn't this too splendid?"
Anger flares up in Jerry's murky eyes. He leaps up, brandishing the washing liquid, and hurls it where Styme would be sitting. The virtual images glitch, showing the splashes of washing liquid spurted across his walls, but the projection compensates and normality quickly resumes. Out of breath, eyes sunken, and hair disheveled, Jerry Xu resembles the countless lunatics he'd encountered on the streets.
"But how would you explain today's rising suicide rates?" the presenter asks acerbically, gesturing to a chart which has phased into view. "These are the figures for the widespread use of Time Axis, and these are the rate of suicides among our citizens. We can clearly see a correlation between the two, especially recently—"
"Ohhhh!" Styme emits a mournful sigh, interrupting his counterpart. His round face suddenly wrinkles up like a shriveled and diseased orange. "This really is very unfortunate. Though we must recognize that there are many reasons for the increase in suicides, that can't be truly attributed to Time Axis."
"Really?" presses the host. "I think you are aware there are members of parliament who think that your company has 'deceived the general public', and various groups and organisations have been promoting 'Refuse to Reload' campaigns…"
"Of course, I am aware." Styme once again interrupts his interviewer softly. "I have been fortunate enough to meet several members of these organizations. According to the laws regulating Time Axis, the company cannot disclose details of the usage of the saving technology by their members, but I have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this so-called 'Refuse to Reload' campaign has relied on quite heavy usage of Save Space."
Styme hasn't even raised his voice, but his small eyes are glowing under the studio lights. He pauses, and then continues: "Pray tell me, who precisely is it that's 'lying to the public'?"
Under the glares of the entire audience, the presenter places his hand on his left wrist and blinks out of existence. He has clearly returned to the file before the interview to prepare his questions again. Styme sits in the studio alone, and slowly turns his face towards the camera. Every tiny blemish and crease is exposed under the harsh studio lights, revealing an aged expression on a young face. His smile is well-honed, smooth, without a blemish; like a jade stone that warms with touch, basking in the extraordinary glow of time.
"Please, consider this." He pauses, then opens his mouth again. "Isn't this the most perfect answer? My dear friends, please don't reject Time Axis; please don't reject having choices in life. You can find answers in every chance you take; why refuse the opportunities to try more? There are always other possibilities out there!"
Pausing to stand up and holding out his hands, he continues: "I have another piece of good news for everyone. In the new edition of Time Axis, we have achieved the cross-save technology. In other words, as long as you and your friends sign the 'Shared Save' agreement, you can enjoy this world together in your subsequent days. Of course, the requirement is that you must simultaneously read, access and reload the saved file—we have put this information under the 'Friends and Family' product category. If you wish to add this to your Time Axis account, please call 1111-111 to sign up today."
The offer is extremely tempting, but Jerry's body refuses to move and remains embedded in the depths of the sofa like an abandoned child. His back is stiffly straight, and his hands contorted as they grasp the back cushion. His nostrils flare and contract; he is thinking.
He could totally go back to this morning, or return to any timeline where Lili exists. Why is he not doing this? And then he remembers one of their fights. A fight he had obliterated from existence, when Lili wasn't just a passive housewife; when she still had passion and would still kiss his lips with love. Halfway through the row, she burst into tears and said, "I don't know when you'll disappear! I always have this feeling that you've abandoned me countless times!"
At the time he replied, "Of course I won't leave you! How could I leave you, darling?"—but when she asked him to remove his Time Axis Saver, he had refused.
"Oh no, there's no need, I'll always be with you," he said, simultaneously reloading a reality five minutes before the row had started. He disregarded the "about-to-kick-off" look on her face, and fiercely dispelled all her rage and doubts with his lips and tongue.
This way, the problem was solved.
So the current Lili is a woman who'd been by his side for six years, and has never fought with him—because he always calms her before things turn into a storm, and because she can never find fault with anything he does. So instead, she's stopped wanting to argue and become indifferent, as cold as stone. No matter what he does or what he says, she looks at him quietly with a hint of contempt in her eyes.
Until this fucking bottle of Camilla's.
With the situation gnawing at him like an itch from the roots of his teeth, the phone rings.
He shoots up, and grabs at the receiver.
"Hello, this is Time Axis." The speaker has a soft, exquisite voice. "Is this Mr Jerry Xu?"
"Speaking." He tries to keep his voice calm.
"Hello, Mr Xu. Your wife has just applied for our company's 'Friends and Family' service. Would you be willing to sign the 'Shared Save' agreement with her?"
"Wait, did you say she's at your office?" Jerry raises his voice.
"She was, sir." The speaker's tone remains smooth and graceful. "Would you be willing to cosign the Share…"
Before she finishes, Xu interrupts: "Tell me where she is! Damn it, keep her there, I'm coming right over."
"Ms Wen has already left, Mr Xu," the sales assistant says gently. "She has especially requested that we call you at this time, and also asked us to inform you—and these are her own words—she understands if you don't want to sign."
"Damn it! Can't you find her?" He knows that Time Axis would have her constantly tracked in their GPS system.
"My apologies. We cannot disclose information about our clients."