The Nightmare of History: Chang Hsi-Kuo’s City Trilogy
Last week I noted that Tor’s promising that they’ll be publishing an English translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy, a highly successful work of Chinese science fiction. Tor says that this will be the first publication of a science fiction novel from mainland China. But, as the statement implies, it won’t be the first Chinese-language sf novel translated into English. You can take a look in the comments of the linked article at Tor for examples; as it happens, I’ve got one of those exceptions to hand, Chang Hsi-Kuo’s City Trilogy, translated by John Balcom and published in one volume in 2003. (Chang, a Taiwanese, has had his name romanised in a number of different ways; I’m using here the name given him on my copy of the English translation of his book.)
According to Balcom’s introduction, the first book of the series, Five Jade Disks, was published in Taiwan in 1984. The next, Defenders of the Dragon City, came in 1986. Tale of a Feather completed the series in 1991. But before the novels, Chang had written a short story called “City of the Bronze Statue,” published in 1980; written in the style of a history or guidebook, it told the story of a bronze statue built at the centre of a colony city on an alien world, and how the statue was broken down and reforged as different rulers took control of the city and systems of government rose and fell. The story’s now the prologue to the trilogy, which itself tells of desperate wars in and around the same city, Sunlon City.
The short story and the trilogy both grapple with history, though in different ways. You can see elements of China’s and Taiwan’s past in the background of the trilogy’s alien setting, in the cycle of dynasties and factions. What comes through clearly, even to someone like me whose understanding of Chinese history is basic at best, is a sense of fatalism. This is science fiction that deals with the big questions, with the sweep of time and the nature of destiny. It’s sometimes a struggle to work through, due to the way that it presents these themes, but I think in the end it’s a convincing success.
The story takes place on the Huhui planet, an alien world colonised by humans thousands of years ago. The Huhui are the main human-descended race, based in and around the metropolitan centre of Sunlon City. Currently, they’re under the rule of the Shan, an interstellar empire. There are also four non-human or part-human races considered to be indigenous to the planet (though the book suggests they’re actually descended from the first wave of human settlers): the Snake People, the Leopard People, the Feathered People, and the rare telepathic chu. Along with them are the Gaiwenese, blue-skinned frog-descended interplanetary wanderers without a homeland.
The series mostly follows Miss Qi, a Huhui singer (or ‘soul toucher’), and her involvement with the resistance to the Shan. That resistance is itself informed by Huhui history: there’s a democratic faction and an aristocratic faction, as well as a shadowy faction dedicated to the now-destroyed bronze statue that once dominated the city and which still seems to symbolise the Huhui people and their past. Qi’s story takes her, and her friends and allies, across a good chunk of territory, though rather less than the whole planet. There are battles, spies, and confrontations; and yet the tale doesn’t seem written with an eye for the dramatic.
The trilogy reads, in English, almost as though it were a chronicle history. It’s terse and swift-moving, but description of major events or emotional scenes are brief. There’s little physical description, except in the cases of plot-necessary information or set pieces such as descriptions of the city and the Huhui sun (purple, turning briefly to gold each noon) which begin some chapters. The reader’s kept at a distance from the text, prevented from falling into an easy sympathy with the story or the characters, who themselves are difficult to grasp. It’s difficult to assimilate while reading, though by the end and in retrospect the design of the whole becomes clear.
One of the great successes of the book in fact also sometimes keeps the reader outside the story: the sheer fecund imagination at work. I’ve described the races and some of the factions at work on the Huhui planet, but there’s more than what I’ve said, and more as well in every aspect of life. We get descriptions of philosophies and artistic movements, we get poems and songs, we get time-travellers and high technology and more, more, more. It’s sometimes exhilarating, but sometimes difficult to parse. When there are starships and rifles and mind-control rays, why are there also cavalry and swordfights and railways? At a certain point you begin to deal with it; you fall into the rhythm of the story and accept that there are reasons for things, just not reasons that get explained in the text. The characters’ easy acceptance of the improbable gives it all a verisimilitude that is more realistic than any set of detailed explanations could be.
One of the things that happens when you read a lot of books is that everything you read starts reminding you of something else you’ve read, even if it’s odd or inappropriate; so while reading The City Trilogy I found myself reminded of the early Michael Moorcock. The adventure-fantasy of Hawkmoon or maybe the early Corum: the books where Moorcock himself has said that character was displaced onto setting, with the hero-characters wandering through weird whimsy-filled worlds, encountering reflections of their own psyches. The City Trilogy’s every bit as strange as those books, but the wildness isn’t really representative of character. Miss Qi emerges as the centre of events, but has little direct emotional connection — except through her patriotism and her sense of belonging to the Huhui and Sunlon City. The prominence of those emotions do tie into the book’s themes, but becomes difficult to relate to as we readers struggle to understand this new and strange world.
In looking around at other reactions to the book, I found some skepticism of the quality of the translation; consider William Thompson’s review here and John Clute’s here. As they say, one wonders at Balcom’s understanding of science fiction, and even more so at the tone of the book. There’s a startling mix of registers, as dialogue shifts from formal to slang unexpectedly. It’s hard to know what to make of it: an artifact of translation, or a definite stylistic choice? I can only react to the text before me, and that element at least works; it contributes to the continual wrong-footing that seems to be a part of the experience of reading the trilogy, as things we expect to be the case turn out not to be so.
On the other hand, one wonders at how much Balcom understands science fiction and science fictional writing. Is the satirical aspect of the novel overemphasised, or conversely taken for granted? As Clute notes, there are aspects of the astronomical terminology used that don’t seem entirely serious, but the English text gives no reason to see them as anything but entirely straight-faced. There are other notes that could be satirical, or could simply be devices that don’t quite work in translation: footnotes refer to nonexistent books from within the story universe, and narration that’s usually omniscient third occasionally directly addresses the reader (“If you recall …”). It’s hard to tell how well Balcom captures either the satire or the storytelling power of the original.
Either way, for all the difficulty of approach, the trilogy’s themes come through clearly. The characters here struggle against history, against the recurrence of violence and conquest and war and colonial mentalities. Chang captures the multiple hierarchies of colonisation quite well; and the bafflement of colonisers, who see themselves as bringers of civilisation, when they’re confronted with resistance from the conquered. He creates a strong sense of history for Sunlon City and the Huhui planet, some of which is clearly based on Chinese history: it’s impossible not to draw parallels when you read about a sage who wrote a classic text called the Art of War, when another character pulls out a red book of regulations, or when one of the Shan colonial officers says that his people have only one philosophy, that “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.” There have to be things I’m missing, too, and things I wonder about; when characters repeat a common Huhui saying, “Though flowers and fruit must fall, scattered by the wind, Sunlon City will be reborn,” do the flowers refer to spring and the fruit to autumn, making the phrase a reference to China’s Spring and Autumn period?
In a sense, it may not matter. I think it is possible to find meaning here without a detailed knowledge of Chinese history. As I read the trilogy, it is in fact about attempting to find a way out of history; about the struggle against the past, against uncreative cycles of time which can only end in sterility and death. It’s about attempting to find a way around destiny. Consider the following passage, from early in the first novel, giving the perspective of an anti-Shan revolutionary:
The Shan warriors on the skyvision screen were busy questioning the residents and shop owners around the square. Yu Jin couldn’t help but smile broadly. They would learn nothing. Even if they shot all the Huhui people on the scene, they still wouldn’t be able to learn anything. Besides, each time the Shan executed one Huhui they would add three members to the underground organization. The more people who died, the stronger grew the Huhui will to resist. Were the occupying forces oblivious to this? Certainly they understood it, but they had no other choice. They were doomed to play the butcher’s role just as Yu Jin was destined to play the part of the underground hero. Although both sides knew where they stood, there was no other way.
Even the characters most entrapped by history are aware of their bondage. They feel they have to play out their destructive dance of patriotism and nationalism and imperialism and violence. Other characters, artists and intellectuals, are unsure; and they’re sidelined by society as a result. The passage I’ve quoted I think gets at something else as well: the book’s weariness of violence. If much of the possible satire of the book seems muted, this at least comes through clearly: the heroism of great warriors is fundamentally ironic, for it’s ultimately pointless.
The book’s skeptical of violence, and if it moves swiftly past great battles other stories would use as vast set pieces, perhaps that’s why. There’s a philosophical position on the Huhui planet called singular awareness, contrasting mind and nonmind in what seems to me a Taoist manner; properly understood, it’s hinted, this could lead to a harmonious society — but how is it to be understood? The sage that wrote the Art of War tried to marry singular awareness to warfare, and in the book’s present warriors aspire to that condition. Can a spiritual ideal actually be consistently manifest in the real, political, historical world?
An interesting question, but the novel’s treatment of it and other themes is undercut by the lack of vivid individual characters. The different factions and ethnicities and power groups of the Huhui planet are well-conceived, but few of the characters live. They’re uninvolving narratively, and seem overdetermined: they rarely surprise. Miss Qi, around whom the narrative revolves, seems to have little motivation; or at least little sense of her motivation comes across. There is then no personality with which we can empathise, to guide us through the whirl of plot and poltics.
Which is too bad, since that whirl in itself is occasionally exhilarating. The book’s blend of ideas and imagery is often fascinating on its own. Structurally, the plot’s deft, moving through surprises and thrills and revelations quite well. And the end is strong, as the ends of each of the three individual novels are strong, bittersweet if not bleak. I’d say that the first and third novels are probably best; they seem to me to capture an expansive, unpredictable feel that eludes the second book, which is more concerned with troop movements and preparations for war. Thematically it makes sense, but it’s hard to remain deeply involved as a reader.
I find, though, that The City Trilogy is staying with me. There’s enough density to it, enough depth, that it remains provocative once it’s finished: the structure of it comes clear. It’s a valuable work, though one perhaps not for the casual reader. It’s certainly strong enough to make one wish for more: more English translations of Chang’s work, and more English translation of Taiwanese and Chinese science fiction in general. A healthier field of translations would make it easier to understand each individual book, I think, making their techniques and traditions clearer. There is a sense in which reading a book like The City Trilogy on its own is like putting together only part of a jigsaw puzzle whose dimensions are unknown but vast. You can only hope that the future, determined or declining as it may be, will bring a wider range of translations, so that at least the scope of the picture before Western readers will be made visible.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His new ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.