Who Goes There?
We don’t know a whole lot about Hao Jingfang, although she’s prominent enough to be one of those native Chinese authors to get circulation in the Anglosphere, and even a Hugo! She’s appeared in both Invisible Planets (which is where I had first read “Folding Beijing,” although I remembered basically nothing about it prior to this reread) and Broken Stars, both edited by Ken Liu, both containing stories from native Chinese authors in translation. Her background in economics certainly gives context to today’s story, which unusually for an SF story (even a “modern” one) gives a good deal of thought to not only the practical conditions of a future civilization but also the economic reality of it. The only other Jingfang story I’ve read is “Invisible Planets,” from the aforementioned anthology of the same name. (No, I don’t remember reading that one either.)
“Folding Beijing” is a sort of reprint but not really. It was first published in the February 2014 issue of the Chinese magazine ZUI Found, but did not appear in English (translated by Ken Liu) until the January-February 2015 issue of Uncanny Magazine, and it’s this English version that won Jingfang the Hugo for Best Novelette. At 16,254 words it’s almost long enough to count as a novella, although I can believe its novelette status; despite its wordage it has plot beats that could be adequately covered in a 10,000-word story. I’m not sure if Jingfang’s style is just verbose or if it looks that way as filtered through Liu’s own poetic-leaning style.
You can read “Folding Beijing” free online here. I really should not have to elaborate on that, but then we do have several print options. It appeared in a couple annual best-of anthologies, including Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016 and Neil Clarke’s The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume 1. Something I’ve noticed, looking through the last few entries in his own best-of series, is that Gardner Dozois was oddly deaf to stuff coming out of Uncanny Magazine, despite that publication quickly gaining traction for its quality. Speaking of which, if you’re in a collecting mood then there’s The Best of Uncanny: you could get a hardcover for a pretty penny or as an ebook if you wanna save money, but my opinion on this deeply political matter is, what’s the point of getting an ebook copy of something that’s clearly meant to be a collector’s item? Finally, as said before, you can find it in Invisible Planets.
Not hard to find at all. What’s your excuse?
The stereotype of Asian parents being obsessed with schooling immediately rears its head, and not only that but it drives the plot. Some things just can’t be escaped. Lao Dao is a waste disposal worker in a future Beijing that looks a little… different from how it is nowadays. Just how different we’ll see later. The crux of the issue is that Lao Dao, a single parent with a shitty job, wants to send his adopted daughter Tangtang to kindergarten, which sounds easy enough to basically all of us, except that apparently in the Beijing of the story kindergarten may as well be college. Right off the bat I find this hard to believe, at least as a pale white kid from New Jersey who spent his time at kindergarten literally taking naps. There is sort of a justification for why schooling works the way it does in-story, but we’re not given that until much later and even then it’s a bit of a tough pill. The words “kindergarten” and “tuition” really should not be next to each other.
Lao Dao makes just enough to pay rent, so how he’s going to get his daughter (who, mind you, is an off-screen plot device and not a real character) may require some extra income if you know what I mean. I’m of two minds about the exposition here, because clearly Jingfang thought out the implications of her partly invented society and did what most any good science-fictionist ought to do: take things to their logical conclusion, even if it sounds extreme. The problem is that, like I said earlier, this story could’ve feasibly been a few thousand words shorter, mainly through streamlining the walls of text Jingfang throws at us. Take, for instance, this early bit where we find out just how dire the kindergarten situation is:
Lao Dao’s research on kindergarten tuition had shocked him. For schools with decent reputations, the parents had to show up with their bedrolls and line up a couple of days before registration. The two parents had to take turns so that while one held their place in the line, the other could go to the bathroom or grab a bite to eat. Even after lining up for forty–plus hours, a place wasn’t guaranteed. Those with enough money had already bought up most of the openings for their offspring, so the poorer parents had to endure the line, hoping to grab one of the few remaining spots. Mind you, this was just for decent schools. The really good schools? Forget about lining up—every opportunity was sold off to those with money. Lao Dao didn’t harbor unrealistic hopes, but Tangtang had loved music since she was an eighteen–month–old. Every time she heard music in the streets, her face lit up and she twisted her little body and waved her arms about in a dance. She looked especially cute during those moments. Lao Dao was dazzled as though surrounded by stage lights. No matter how much it cost, he vowed to send Tangtang to a kindergarten that offered music and dance lessons.
The good exposition is giving us an impression as to the class divide in this city, which as we’ll find out is even more of a gulf than we’re initially led to believe; the bad exposition is at the end, those last few sentences about the daughter which we really don’t need to know about. All that matters is that Lao Dao has someone in his life whom he loves and who he has to care for. That Lao Dao might do something illegal so as to provide for someone he cares about is understandable on its own; we don’t need bits of flavor for a character we won’t be getting attached to anyway.
Moving on, Lao Dao meets up with a knowledgable older neighbor who, reluctantly, gives him advice on how to traverse the city for a risky but lucrative gig. See, Lao Dao is in Third Space, the lowest echelon of Beijing and the rank that has quite literally the least time and space to work with. You see, Beijing is not a place that you can just make a round trip for; it’s always locked away in parts depending on which echelon of the city is allowed to use what. I’ll explain how this works in a second, but for now it’s important to know that Lao Dao has a difficult task as messenger, taking a message he had originally gotten from Second Space and taking it to First Space. Getting caught meant imprisonment, but success meant putting his daughter in school. “And the cash, the cash was very real.” Lao Dao had snuck into Second Space just to get the message, so First Space, while it would be more difficult, would be surely possible.
Now is the time for me to explain how this works. Correct if I’m wrong, because the phrasing for this little bit of exposition is confusing (I blame Ken, sorry), but Beijing operates on a 48-hour cycle. First Space gets 24 hours to do whatever it wants, then gets put into drug-induced sleep for the next 24. Second Space gets to be awake from 6am on that second day, when First Space is asleep, to 10pm. Then Third Space comes up at 10pm that second day and goes to sleep at 6am the following day, and then the cycle begins anew. 24 hours, then 16, then a measely eight for Third Space. “Five million enjoyed the use of twenty-four hours, and seventy-five million enjoyed the next twenty-four hours.” Sounds simple enough to get around; Lao Dao just has to break curfew. Well, there is one more complication, and it’s what gives the story its title.
What happens to Beijing every Change (mind the capital C) is hard to describe with words, which doesn’t stop Jingfang/Liu from trying. Imagine if a city was a piece of origami. The city is always compartmentalized; it’s impossible to see or even comprehend the city with all its parts unfolded. It’s an impressive if also nightmare work of architecture wherein the three echelons are segrigated by time and space, with First Space being allowed the most access. Not only does Lao Dao have to sneak past surveillance (which, come to think of it, would be nigh superhuman on its own) but he also has to navigate a city that has literally changed its shape around him. The scene where Beijing changes for the first time is a money shot and the most evocative part of the story; it kinda just peaks right there, which is weird because we’re only about a third into it.
Getting to Second Space would be easy enough, as was getting the message. Quin Tian is willing to pay a huge sum for a message to be sent to Yi Yan, a woman in First Space he is deeply fond of, and twice as much money if Lao Dao can get a message from Yi Yan back to him. Basically, Lao Dao has to go from Third Space, wait a whole 24 hours for First Space to go through its cycle, then meet at Second Space, then wait through Third Space’s cycle before getting to First Space. (Who’s on First Space? Sorry.) If this sounds a little convoluted, don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
There’s a weirdly specific genre of storytelling that may as well have (although it probably didn’t) originated in Italian Neo-Realist films. To indulge my film buff side and drop some of my baggage on you, “Folding Beijing” reminds me more than a little of Bicycle Thieves, which has a very similar premise and sequence of events: a put-upon father has to help his child but is forced to venture outside the law when his livelihood is threatened, with tragic results. See also the much more recent Wendy and Lucy, in which a woman (implied to be homeless) has to choose between taking care of her beloved dog on a shoestring budget and putting her in more capable (i.e., slightly less impoverish) hands. In all three stories money is the driving force of the conflict; without it there would be no plot. “The soul of man under capitalism” is fitting for all three.
Needless to say that the Beijing of the story is not the socialist paradise that certain people desperately want China in the real world to be, and which China in the real world is seemingly averse to bringing about.
There Be Spoilers Here
I’m not terribly interested in recounting events in the latter of the story, so I’ll use much of this space to go on a related tangent. “Folding Beijing” is no doubt a dystopian narrative, which makes it just one more entry in a very long (and honestly tired) line of dystopian science fiction. Dystopian SF is, to my mind, the most overexposed and overrated subgenre of SF; it really can be quite tiresome with how much it’s read in schools and how much water it holds in the popular consciousness. 1984 is a more respected (and itself overrated) work of literature than the genre it belongs to. If SF wants to be taken seriously by naysayers and academics it’s all but required to come packaged in a box which reads “DYSTOPIA” instead of “AMAZON.” The Last of Us (both the video game and the TV show) is taken seriously seemingly on the basis that it’s dystopian SF, therefore it’s serious SF. The world presented is dogshit (i.e., worse than ours), therefore we respect it.
Something I’ve realized is that it’s impossible to write dystopian fiction without also writing self-criticism. There’s no such thing as writing a dystopian SF where the society presented has absolutely nothing to do with the society the authors lives in, where the society presented can’t possibly be an “if this goes on” scenario. George Orwell wrote 1984 in reaction to Stalinisn, yes, but he also wrote it because he feared the UK devolving into (more) authoritarian capitalism and becoming akin to that other country he loathed very much. Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in reaction to the creeping ubiquity of technology in people’s lives which (he thought) would choke off intellectualism and freedom of expression. (The prominence of television, then-newfangled tech, in the novel and how it relates to characters losing their capacity to think actively, should tell you where Bradbury is coming from.) Similarly to Fahrenheit 451, “Folding Beijing” is basically an anti-technology narrative.
Now, when we call someone a luddite, we use as shorthand for the “old man shakes fist at cloud” meme, but when I call Jingfang a luddite, I’m using it in the proper sense. There are two sides to the robot debate with regards to human employment: the first side says that automation will free people to do as they please and indulge in creative endeavors they otherwise might not have been able to; the second side raises the question of, “What would happen if you had millions of people only really fit for unskilled labor who one day found that unskilled labor taken over by automation?” Jingfang very much falls on the latter side. Beijing is a city of about 80 million people where a sizable portion of those people don’t have work to do and there’s very little room for upward mobility. A good fraction of the population works in waste disposal because that’s basically the only job they can do; meanwhile a small fraction reaps the benefits.
And even the human-driven waste disposal is in jeopardy of being replaced.
Rather than free people to live the lives they want, automation has helped create an incredibly rigid class system in which the rich use the city as a playground and dump their waste on those who (quite literally) live on the other side. And yet, while Lao Dao’s experience in First Space is traumatizing, there is a ray-of-hope ending, with him not getting thrown in jail and even bringing home some money for his daughter—albeit not the amount he had originally sought. Personally I found the ending unsatisfying, if only because by the time we get to it Jingfang has thrown so much exposition at us that the plot starts feeling like a sideshow. She does a lot telling rather than showing, whether it be someone projectile vomiting exposition at Lao Dao or the reader being subjected to chunky paragraphs of characters telling their life stories—characters who, mind you, appear once and never again. This is a short story and not a novella, sure, but it’s bloated.
A Step Farther Out
“Folding Beijing” winning the Hugo when it did must not have seemed like coincidence, given that Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem in its English translation also won the Hugo the previous year. If SF in the 2010s was defined by anything (aside from, ya know, the Sad Puppies and that whole debacle) it’s the rise of Chinese SF in the Anglosphere. I reckon “Folding Beijing” appealed to voters because it has a robust human interest plot that’s buoyed by an admittedly pretty neat idea, but the important thing is that said pretty neat idea is not just there to look cool in the reader’s mind: it illustrates the story’s central conceit effectively. That it’s also outwardly ambivalent about China’s future (i.e., that China will only become more of a hyper-capitalist shithole under the current regime) probably didn’t hurt. As for myself, I’ve seen this sort of thing done many times before, and more concisely, even if I agree with Jingfang’s conceit.
See you next time.