This is the last of my posts on award-nominated short fiction for the time being, with the Locus awards almost upon us. Folding Beijing is a scintillating vision from Chinese author Hao Jingfang (translation by Ken Liu): an urban fairy tale in a chillingly recognisable future. In the China of tomorrow, everyone will have a place.
Folding Beijing is a voyage of discovery, which can only be spoilt by talking about the detail. Much of my joy came from the well-paced reveal of the city Lao Dao lives in – threadbare, basic – and his encounters with the higher strata of society who depend on him as he ventures beyond the limited boundaries of his world.
As the story unfolds (apologies for the unintentional pun), we see every side of this future Beijing. It’s hard not to read Folding Beijing as social commentary: the manual labourers of Third Space; the middle classes of Second Space; the remote elites of First Space. Lao Dao’s crossings between them feel on the one hand like a fairy tale quest – a new father, he must take a message between lovers separated by worlds in order to earn much-needed cash – and on the other rub in just how poor his quality of life is.
My heart was in my mouth through much of his time in First Space, thumping with the threat of what they might do to him if he were discovered. The sequence in which the Change is delayed is a masterpiece, Lao Dao’s terror recounted side by side with the indifferent and seemingly trivial concerns of Wu Wen and the silver-haired administrator. There are hints of a deeper story here in Wu Wen’s political manoeuvring, but this is a red herring. We are meant only to know that these movers and shakers have concerns and ambitions of their own – so far over Lao Dao’s head that they are unknowable, although the implications could change his world.
It’s a fascinating read, but I was ultimately disappointed. This has less to do with the painful pragmatism of the piece – a poor man is happy with his fate – than a final scene nuance that left me wrong-footed.
Lao Dao does not return home from his quest dissatisfied with his life, and he has no desire to change the world. Like a simple farmer in a fairytale, he is simply glad to be home and satisfied with his marginally improved lot (he returns home to his job, but with a pot of gold to secure his daughter’s future).
I might have been satisfied with this as a bittersweet ending – knowing that the sword of Wu Wen’s machinations hangs over Lao Dao’s head – if it hadn’t been for the casual sexism of the closing paragraphs, where he takes his landlady’s usury for granted and reduces his neighbours to pretty girls who should smile, quiet and elegant, rather than permitting them to be outspoken young ladies who defend their rights. When he reflects that one day his daughter will now be an elegant young lady, I found it rather less satisfying than my assumption that his payment would secure her an education and perhaps a way up the ladder out of Third Space.
I really enjoyed Folding Beijing until I got to the end. Unlike some stories, which convert me in the final paragraphs, it burnt a lot of the credit it had built up. It remains an intriguing story, but it didn’t deliver quite what I expected, and I wasn’t comforted by what I got instead.
It is still well worth a read for the world-building and socioeconomics.
Folding Beijing can be read online at Uncanny. It is nominated for a Locus Award.
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