Reviews: Cat Pictures Please & Folding Beijing

Warning, this review has spoilers. I’ve grouped these two “in-depth” reviews together because there really isn’t much to say about them beyond what I’ve already said.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer would have been a quirky, weak winner in another year, but with the puppies, she is by far the best choice this year. The basic premise is that an AI becomes sentient and tries to help people in between viewing cat pictures. The actual plot is episodic, detailing her various attempts to help people, focusing on three. It doesn’t always work out, but no matter what happens, the story never becomes thrilling. The episodic set up prevents real tension from ever building.

Beyond the cute, crowd-pleasing premise (cat pictures have been a big thing on the internet since I first got into it), there isn’t too much here. I can see why this was nominated for the Nebula, but I can also see why it didn’t win.

A worthy winner? I’ve read worse that won Hugos during average years, but it’s not one of the stronger pieces.

As for Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, there isn’t too much else to say because the whole story hinges on the idea of a folding city. Beijing here is split up into three different sections. City 1 is populated by the rich, and they also get the most time awake. City 2 is a step below that, and city 3 is filled with manual workers. Each night, as one city goes to sleep, the city folds up and another (temporarily) takes its place.

There is a story here: a worker from city 3 sneaks into city 2 and then city 1 to deliver a love letter between a bureaucrat and a woman. Capture means at best jail, but if he succeeds he gets the money he needs to send his daughter to a good school. But like I said before, since his daughter hardly ever appears, the plot feels less like a vehicle for excitement than a way to show off this concept.

The disappointing thing is that this concept is indeed a great one: more stories set in this world to flesh it out more would be awesome. I could see this winning or coming in a close second place in a normal year. It’s not perfect, but it is thought-provoking, intriguing, and although the plot has problems, it never truly drags.

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2016 Hugo Awards

I will post about these in more comprehensive posts later on, but here’s a few basic thoughts on the 2016 Hugo winners (I’m proud I was able to read all of the winners before the ceremony).

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin for best novel. This was one of the best fantasy books in a while. It’s set in a world with a giant continent that is wracked by natural disasters. Every hundred years or two, a big enough disaster occurs to set off decade-long storms, known as fifth seasons. Magicians have some power over stone but are feared for it. They are kept in check by a society as they learn to control their magical powers. There are three plot lines: a woman mourns the death of her son who her husband killed because he exhibited some magical powers. His wife never revealed to him that she also has control over magic. She sets out to get revenge and runs into some colorful companions. In another, a young girl with magic is found by a member of that society and taken to a school to train. In the last, and imo best, a young woman at the school is taken on a quest with a high level magic user to fix the stone in a city’s harbor. And while there, they find something completely unexpected…

I thought for sure Uprooted was going to win, but I’m really happy it didn’t. The characters there are flat, the magic system makes no sense (and the book hinges on it), and despite setting out to subvert cliches, it has tons of YA ones. And it already won the Nebula…ugh. The Fifth Season was definitely something special (and as an added bonus, Vox Day was kicked out of the SWFA for calling her a subhuman).

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor for best novella. This one was meh. A girl named Binti runs away from her home in order to attend a university on another planet. While in transit, they’re attacked by an alien race and she is left as the only human still alive. What starts as a survival story then quickly becomes a tale about differences in culture. The ending, though, is awful, to the point of ruining what came before it. Not surprised this won, as it was the only non-puppy choice here, but still.

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, translated by Ken Liu. Surprisingly, this one was a rabid puppies pick, but it probably would’ve been nominated anyway. Looking at it from a political standpoint, I’m not really sure why they picked it. It’s set in a dystopian future. To avoid overpopulation issues in Beijing, the government has set up a folding system: for 24 hours, city 1, populated by the elite, goes about their days and then sleeps. During that period, the city literally folds up to reveal city 2, and then city 3. Lao Dao is a menial worker in city 3 who dreams of sending his daughter to a better school, but he doesn’t have the money. To finance this, he undertakes a quest to deliver a love letter from a man in city 2 to a woman in city 3. The punishment for being caught would be jail, or worse. The idea here was pretty interesting, but it would’ve been nice to get the characters more fleshed out. His daughter barely makes any appearances, and some of the city 1 characters feel tacked on. Over all, though, it deserves the win.

Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer for best short story. I already covered this in my post yesterday, but for those moaning about Chuck Tingle, he wound up placing third below no award.

For the full list of winners, see here: http://www.thehugoawards.org/

Book Review: The Last Lover by Can Xue

Can Xue is becoming one of my favorite writers. She’s a surreal writer from China, and when I say surreal, I mean, if you imagine Haruki Murakami being a 3/10 in terms of otherworldly content, she’s a 10. Her stories quickly lose sight of reality and enter their own horrific dream worlds. In English, her best-known work is her novel Five Spice Street, but I prefer The Last Lover, winner of the 2015 Best Translated Book Award.

It starts out simple enough: Joe, a sales manager at a clothing store, who wants to mentally link all the books he’s ever read in his head so that he can always be reading. His wife, Maria, is has mystical problems of her own, and both Joe’s boss and a customer of his are having issues with spouses and lovers.

Locations repeat, people become animals, ghosts appear, and characters visit cities that are entirely underground. Though most of the characters have overarching stories, most chapters are episodic. Present throughout (and linking everything together) is the theme of love and what it means to these people.

There’s not too much else to say. Can Xue’s writing is like a kaleidoscopic dream. And much like dreams, describing it to other people is just boring. You have to read it yourself to experience it. It’s not for everyone, but it’s now one of my favorites.

Book Review: Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

Soon after they come into power in China, the Communists killed numerous landowners. Ximen Nao is a fictional landowner based off of those condemned. Through sheer stubbornness, he manages to convince the Lord of the Underworld, Lord Yama, to grant him another chance at life, which Yama agrees to but with a twist: Ximen Nao is reincarnated as a donkey. The novel follows him and others from his town through most post-1950 Chinese events.

The first section features Ximen Nao as a donkey, but he doesn’t stay in this form for long. Each part has Nao reincarnated from various animals, from a dog to a bigheaded baby. And although he provides the crux of the novel, he is not the only narrator: the son of Nao’s former servant also has a voice. The narration style has been criticized as being hard to follow at times, but I never thought this was the case. At first it is not clear to whom the narrators are telling these stories, but it never hampers the narrative and after a few chapters it becomes obvious.

Out of the books I’ve read by Mo Yan, this is by far my favorite (although it is by no means perfect). There is hardly a dull moment in the 550+ page book. His satiric pen is on full display here (parodying some of the odder moments in China’s Communist chapter, such as the Great Sparrow Campaign), as is his unrestrained prose style. For those who think less is more or enjoy the terse styles of Camus or Hemingway, this probably is not the right book for you; for those who enjoy Faulkner or Marquez’s verbosity, you will find more of what you love in Mo Yan.

Actually, the comparisons to those latter two writers run deeper than just on the writing level. Mo Yan was influenced by both of them. The various techniques Faulkner uses throughout his own pieces are present in LIFE AND DEATH. The family chronicle as Mo Yan depicts it here seem to me reminiscent of the one Marquez wrote in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE.

But, as I said, this is not a perfect novel. Towards the end, during one of Ximen Nao’s last reincarnations (the monkey), it is almost like Mo Yan realized he needed to wrap up the book quickly and speeds through. As a result, it seems unfinished and unsatisfying. A lot more could have come from this bit or it could have been edited out. In this half-assed form, it just doesn’t work.

Aside from that, there are few problems with the text. The first time I read THE GARLIC BALLADS, I knew Mo Yan had it in him to write something truly great; to me, this is him fulfilling that. A great work of not just Chinese but world literature.

(Fun fact: Mo Yan wrote this in 42 days when he was suffering from bad insomnia. I can find nothing about how much editing took place afterward, but knowing Mo Yan and how prolific he is, it would not surprise me if there was only a minimal amount. Another fun fact: though the title in English is a mouthful, it is probably the best possible rendering of the literal Chinese title, which translates directly into something like “Life-Death Fatigue.”)

Book Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong

It’s disheartening to see negative reviews of this book almost everywhere I look. The main problems, I suspect, are that this retelling of a Chinese myth is not quite the fairy tale you’d expect and that it is not quite Su Tong’s usual fare. (And admittedly the translation could be better). If you know what you’re getting into, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The myth is that Binu’s husband is taken to work on the Great Wall, but as winter comes around, she starts to worry that he will freeze to death since he doesn’t have a coat. Using this premise, Su Tong fashions a story set in a world permeated with magical realism: a woman is reincarnated as a frog, in Binu’s home village, people are not allowed to cry and to get around this citizens have learned to cry from their breasts, their hands, etc. And that’s just scratching the surface.

But when it comes to fairy tales, this is far from Disney and even harsher than the original Brothers Grimm tales.

The most common complaint is just how awful the characters are to each other and how whiny and useless Binu can come across, but that’s just typical misanthropic Su Tong. If you like happy stories stay far away from this. The way I saw it, in a world as cruel and unyielding as the one Su Tong presents, a woman as optimistic as Binu must be crazy, and that’s exactly how she comes across.

I would not recommend anyone start here with Su Tong. The translation could be better and the subject matter is unusual for him. But he’s a writer most people (those that can get over not necessarily sympathizing with a character) should check out (start with the collection of novellas, Raise the Red Lantern), and this is definitely a worthy edition to his body of work.

(As a side note, I read that there was such a bustle to get Su Tong’s book, The Boat to Redemption, out in English that the translator used an earlier draft, resulting in an inferior work. Apparently this book was released to wide acclaim in China and became a best-seller, so I’m curious if something similar happened here. Either way, however, it’s a good read.)

Book Review: Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

The Russians have Tolstoy. The Irish have Joyce. The English have Shakespeare. And the Chinese have…Cao Xueqin? Author of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (varying translations have slightly different titles), his work has been incredibly popular since it was first published in the late 18th century and is still a cultural phenomenon in Asia today. This past year I taught English in China. All of the teachers knew the plot, several had read it multiple times (considering it is comparable to Proust in terms of length, rereading it is no small achievement), and some fifth graders were reading a dumbed down version. But despite this, it has never caught on overseas.

The frame story is…odd. I think there are some poetic connotations, but to a non-Chinese, a lot of these references are lost. A magical stone wishes it could experience life, so two priests give it a body so it can learn from human experience.

In an aristocratic family, an heir is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. This is Baoyu. Though readers do see him growing up briefly, the majority of the story is about him as a young adult in a love triangle between Daiyu (the one he wants) and his cousin Baochai (the one his family wants him to marry) as their family declines and falls out of favor. The book is so long, and there are so many other characters, that it is almost impossible to give a full plot summary. There are tons of side stories and despite the focus on aristocrats the book covers all areas of life.

Not all these plotlines are equal: sometimes readers will have to slog through a chapter or two, but it is always worth it. There is something for everyone: murder, love, tragedy, poetry contests, Chinese culture. That last one is especially important; this is practically an encyclopedia of 18th century China.

Interestingly, the book experiences a drop in quality towards the end. The legend goes that Cao Xueqin died before he could finish it and another writer, Gao E, tacked on his own ending.

One reason the book may never have taken off in the Western world is translation. The book is written in a special dialect, and it is impossible to bring into English the nuance that comes from writing in this special system. Numerous poems also dot the text, and in each case it is unfortunately obvious that something is lost in translation. But do not let this or the last point about the ending be a deterrent, as the work definitely survives these flaws.

There are a lot of different editions and translations available in English. The Penguin editions are the definitive English copies, but with each volume selling separately, it can be a pretty penny to go with those copies. I read the DREAM OF RED MANSIONS version available from Chinese Classics, offered as a four volume set for the reasonable price of $20. Perhaps this explains some of the translation issues, but this edition is still worth reading. If I have been harsh in listing the cons, it is only because there are too many pros to list. The Complete Review listed this as a contender for the “book of the millennium” title, and I agree completely. Though if you have the money/if your library has the copies, perhaps go with the Penguin version.

Book Review: Radish by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, controversial Nobel Prize winner, started writing soon after enlisting in the Chinese army in 1976 and published A TRANSPARENT RADISH, here simply titled RADISH, in 1984. It is one of his first published works, and it does feature some flaws typical of early books, but fans will see the writer who would soon publish RED SORGHUM stepping up to bat here (a classic he published just two years later).

Already Mo Yan’s unbridled prose energy is present here (though slightly more reigned in than in later works) and the usual themes of food and hunger waft through the text. The plot centers around a scrawny, sickly mute boy, Hei-Hai, trying (and usually failing) to perform the tasks assigned to him by a work brigade. The other main characters are the blacksmith he works under, a mason, and the maiden Juzi, who meet each other through Hei-Hai and become embroiled in a love triangle.

The novella is mostly character driven, and for that it suffers. In a book of this length it’s difficult to fully describe characters, leaving the main characters more archetypes with one or two distinguishing details than fully formed, and some side characters are one dimensional and don’t appear nearly enough. Those new to Mo Yan, beware that he does not have a kind view of humankind. His fiction is a cruel world where miserable things happen to almost everyone and even the characters the reader is supposed to root for have awful qualities. If you need a sympathetic character (or an uplifting ending), Mo Yan might not be for you.

Still, the plot never flags. I was never on the edge of my seat but I also ever wanted to put it down. I have heard that after the Nobel Prize, some high school students in China are now required to read this, and after reading, despite the flaws, it is not hard to see why. English readers, however, might get less out of this than a Chinese reader, due to cultural differences. The descriptions of the work brigade would obviously resonate more with those familiar with Chinese culture.

Interestingly, little of the magical realism that Mo Yan is famous for is present here. Other than a brief appearance by a “transparent radish,” there is nothing, and those not expecting it might be thrown off by the sudden appearance of a see-through vegetable. By the end of the text, though, the metaphor of the radish makes sense. I highlight this not because it is a negative, but rather because it hints at an early Mo Yan more grounded in reality than his later metafictional, mystical works. Considering a lot of his novels revolve around those elements, what would a realistic Mo Yan be like?

Overall, RADISH very obviously an early work, but its pros outweigh its cons by a good margin. It is probably not the best place to start exploring Mo Yan or his country’s literature, but with its cheap e-book price, anyone already acquainted with those will find something interesting here.