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Tuesday Fiction: “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (Part Two)

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is the continuation of ‘The City of Silence’ by Ma Boyong from China. You can read Part One of this story here. Ma Boyong (in accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Ma’s name is given in the order of surname followed by given name) is a popular Beijing-based writer of short stories and novels. His work fuses Western convention with traditional Chinese elements. His satire is well known in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. His work has previously appeared in English in TRSF. “The City of Silence” was translated by Ken Liu.

Besides writing and translating speculative fiction, Ken Liu also practices law and develops software for iOS and Android devices. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, TRSF, and Panverse 3, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and they are collaborating on their first novel.

The City of Silence

Ma Boyong

translated by Ken Liu

Out of habit, Arvardan did not say the words aloud. He wasn’t certain if the words were healthy, and so asked his question only with his eyes.

“You can speak as freely as you like in here. This damned device won’t work here.” The woman pointed to his Listener. There was no warning beep. It didn’t seem to hear the two sensitive words in her speech: “freely” and “damned.”

Arvardan remembered the man he had seen a week ago at the bus stop. If he took off his Listener, would what happened to that man also happen to him? The woman saw that he was hesitant. She pointed to the lead-grey curtain at the door: “Don’t worry. This can shield off the signal for the Listener. No one will know.”

“Who, are, you? What, is, this, place?”

Arvardan took off the Listener. He spoke in a low voice. It was still too difficult for him to shift out of the manner of speech demanded by the appropriate authorities.

“This is the Talking Club. Here, you may speak as you like,” said another man as he got up. He was tall and thin, the glasses over his nose particularly thick.

Arvardan mumbled, but could not speak out loud. He was embarrassed by the stares of the four others, and his face flushed bright red. The woman who had opened the door for him gave him a sympathetic look: “You poor thing. Don’t be so tense. Everyone is like this when they first arrive. Over time you’ll get used to it.”

She put a hand on Arvardan’s shoulder: “Actually, we’ve met. At least I’ve seen you, but you haven’t seen me.” As she spoke, she reached up and let down her hair. The black tresses fell to her shoulders, and in that moment Arvardan thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Arvardan finally spoke a whole sentence, though the words still did not flow smoothly. “I…remember you, remember your voice.”

“Really?” The woman laughed. She sat him on a couch, and handed him a glass of water. Arvardan noticed that this was an old-fashioned glass, etched with a flowery pattern. The water inside the glass gave off a faint fragrance. Arvardan tried a sip. The sweet taste was particularly stimulating for a tongue that had grown used to distilled water.

“This wasn’t easy to obtain. Even we can’t get it every week.” The woman sat next to him, looking intently at him with her dark eyes. “How did you find out about us?”

Arvardan explained the process by which he had discovered the sequence of clues. The other four nodded in approval.

“Smart man. Your brain hasn’t become mush,” said a thirty-something man with a few extra pounds. His voice was very loud.

The middle-aged man with glasses put his hands together in a gesture of agreement. “You are a natural for membership in the Talking Club.”

“Alright,” the fat man said, “let’s give a round of applause to formally welcome the new member.”

The other four applauded, and the sound of their clapping filled the small bedroom. Arvardan lifted the glass to them, embarrassed. When the applause died down, he timidly lifted his head, and asked, “Can I ask a question? What exactly is the Talking Club?”

The woman who had brought him in responded:

“The Talking Club is a gathering where we can say anything we want. There are no sensitive words here, and no healthy Web. This is a space to release your soul and stretch out your body.”

“Our principle is just this: talk,” added the middle-aged man, and he adjusted his glasses.

“But, what can I talk about?”

“Anything. You can talk about anything in your heart.” The middle-aged man smiled.

This is an audacious gathering. It’s clearly criminal, Arvardan thought. But he found himself attracted to the idea of being a criminal in this way.

“Of course, we need to make certain things clear,” the woman said. “Talking is dangerous. Every member faces the danger of arrest by the appropriate authorities. State agents may break through the door at any moment, and capture us under the charges of illegal assembly and using illegal language. You have the right to refuse to join us, and leave immediately.”

Arvardan listened to the woman’s warning. He hesitated. But he thought that if he left now, then he would go back to his life, suffocating in a quagmire. Arvardan had not known he had such a strong yearning to talk.

“I will not leave. I will join you, talking.”

“Perfect! Oh, why don’t we start with self-introductions?” The woman was delighted. She stood up. “Let’s start with me. My name is Artemis. As for my Web Access Serial? To hell with it. Who cares? I have my own name.”

Her words made everyone, including Arvardan, laugh. Then she continued. “Still, Artemis is just a pseudonym. She’s a goddess from Greek mythology.”


“Right. It’s not the same as the name on my Personal Identification Card.”

“But, why?”

“Aren’t you sick of the name they have for you in their files? I want to give myself a name that I like, even if there’s just one place to use it. In the Talking Club we each have picked a name for ourselves. That’s how we address one another.”

Arvardan nodded thoughtfully. He understood Artemis’s feeling. When using the BBS forums, he had hoped to pick a name that he liked, and not be assigned a user name.

Through Artemis’s self-introduction, Arvardan learned that she was a staffer at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She was twenty-three, single, and hated cockroaches and spiders. Her hobbies included sewing and gardening, and the flowers in the bedroom were secretly cut and brought back by her from outside the Capital.

Next was the middle-aged man. His name was Lancelot. He was forty-one, an engineer at the Capital Electric Plant. The name “Lancelot” came from the Arthurian legends, and belonged to a faithful knight. Lancelot was married and had two children: a boy (aged three) and a girl (aged four). They liked lemon-flavored candy the most. Lancelot hoped he would be able to bring the kids to the next gathering of the Club. The children were still learning to talk, and he wanted them to learn real speech.

The thirty-something overweight man was a Web Regulator for the Department of Web Security, named Wagner. This surprised Arvardan. He had had the impression that Web Regulators were all cold, expressionless men, but the man before Arvardan was corpuscular, oily, and his mustache curled up spiritedly at the ends. He loved cigars and the opera, and took advantage of the special privileges available to Web Regulators to obtain them.

“Wagner got us the curtains that can shield the signals from the Listener,” Artemis added. Wagner tipped an imaginary hat and bowed to her.

The fourth member of the Talking Club was a woman in a black uniform. She had just turned thirty. Her name was Duras, and she worked as an editor at the Capital Daily Times. She was even thinner than Artemis, and her high cheeks contrasted with her sunken eyes. Her thin lips didn’t part much from each other even when she spoke, and never revealed her teeth. She liked cats and dogs, even though she had no pets now.

“It’s you next,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan took a minute to think, and then introduced himself to the group, stammering many times. When he tried to describe his hobbies, for a moment he couldn’t think of any. He had never had to think about hobbies before.

Artemis put her hand on his shoulder again, and tried to help him. “Well, what’s the one thing you really want to do?”

“I can really say anything?”

“Anything. There are no restrictions here.”

Arvardan thought that he had finally found an opportunity. He cleared his throat, scratched his head, and broke into a loud, crisp shout: “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”

All the others were stunned. Wagner was the first to recover. He held onto his cigar with his teeth and applauded vigorously. Then he took the cigar in his hand, and loudly exclaimed: “Fantastic! This should be our formal membership oath.”

Artemis and Duras both giggled. Arvardan thought that, beyond the novelty of speaking with the Club, he really enjoyed the sense of contempt for the appropriate authorities in voicing the string of swearwords.

Artemis tilted her head and asked him, “What do you wish to name yourself?”

“Ummm…Wang Er,” Arvardan said. This was a Chinese name. He had once had a Chinese friend who loved to tell stories. In all his stories, the main character was named Wang Er.

The mood in the bedroom was now friendly and easy, and conversation became more natural. Everyone got into a comfortable position, and Artemis refilled everyone’s cup from a kettle from time to time. Arvardan gradually let go of his tension, and felt that his brain had never been so relaxed.

Artemis filled his cup with sweet water again, “It’s impossible to speak freely in our daily lives. We need this space. But we can’t openly advertise for membership, and it’s far too risky to try to find new members through physical contact. So Lancelot designed a system of clues and hints, and Wagner and I used our system access privileges to leave the clues in places. Only those who discovered and solved the clues would find the Club.”

“My system wasn’t designed just for safety,” Lancelot said. He took off his glasses and carefully polished them. “It’s also a qualifying exam for potential new members. Members of the Talking Club must be in possession of intelligence and wisdom, passionate, and full of yearning for freedom.”

Wagner held his cigar between two fingers, flicked the ash into an ashtray, then said loudly, “In my experience, most applicants for permission to use the BBS service are nostalgic for the past or desire something new and fresh in their lives. They think that the BBS forums will show them something different from daily life—of course, reality is far otherwise since the State’s control over the BBS forums is even stricter than the regulation of email—but their desire indicates that they want to be free. Thus, we hide our clues in the BBS documents so that only applicants for BBS service can find them. And only those who are smart and observant can find all the hints and follow their trail to find this place.”

“You are the second person to find the Talking Club. The first was Miss Duras,” Artemis said to Arvardan. Arvardan gazed at Duras in admiration. Duras lightly said, “It’s no big deal. My job is all about playing with words.”

Arvardan remembered the crazy man he had met at the bus stop a week ago. He told the others his story. When he was finished, Lancelot shook his head, and sighed.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing too. It happened to a colleague of mine. This shows the necessity for something like the Talking Club as a pressure-release valve. Living constantly under the restrictions imposed by sensitive words will drive people crazy because they can neither think nor express themselves.”

Wagner moved his heavy body to the side. “This is exactly what the appropriate authorities want to see. Then only the stupid will survive. A society full of stupid men is a stable one.”

“You are also a member of the appropriate authorities, Mr. Wagner,” Artemis said lightly as she refilled Wagner’s cup.

“Miss Artemis, I’m an ordinary man just like any other, with the sole distinction that I’m allowed to use a few more sensitive words.”

Everyone laughed. Arvardan had never seen so many people speak so much. He found, to his own surprise, that he quickly felt at home among these people. The distance and sense of unfamiliarity between them melted away quickly. Also, his dizziness and congested chest, problems that had become habits, disappeared.

Quickly the topic of conversation turned from the Talking Club itself to broader interests. Artemis sang a song; Lancelot told a few jokes; Duras told everyone about the customs of the southern provinces of the State; Wagner even sang an aria from an opera. Even though Arvardan couldn’t understand a word of this last contribution, he did not hold back his applause. In a shielded corner of the Capital, five individuals unwilling to sink into silence were enjoying a most precious luxury—talking.

“Wang Er, do you know Nineteen Eighty-Four?” Artemis asked. She sat down next to Arvardan.

Arvardan shook his head. “I only know that nineteen eighty-four is part of my Web Access Serial.”

“It’s a book.”

“Book?” This was an old word. Now that computer technology had advanced to the point that all information was contained by the Web, anyone could go to the online library to get the digital editions of published material. The appropriate authorities considered physical books to be an unnecessary waste, and they had gradually disappeared.

Wagner said, “It is understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great book. It’s what an old philosopher predicted about our modern world,” Artemis said earnestly. “Long ago, the book perceived the struggle between restraint and freedom over the flesh and over the soul. It’s the foundation of the Talking Club.”

“How can one read this book?” Arvardan asked, staring into Artemis’s dark eyes.

“We can’t find a paper copy, and of course the online library won’t have it.” Lancelot shook his head, and then broke into another smile. He gestured with his left hand at Duras. “Our Miss Duras should be proud of her memory. When she was young, she was fortunate enough to have read this book, and could recall most of it.”

“Wonderful! Then she wrote it out, right?”

“That would be far too dangerous. Right now, owning physical books is a great crime, and would risk exposing the Talking Club. Instead, every time the Talking Club meets, we ask Miss Duras to recite some of it.”

Everyone quieted. Duras stood up and walked to the middle of the room. Arvardan casually put his arm around Artemis’s shoulders, and she leaned towards him, her hair drifting between them. A faint feminine fragrance found its way to his nose and caused his heart to skip a few beats.

Duras’s voice was not loud, but clear and forceful. Her memory was indeed amazing: not only did she remember the plot, but she could even recount many of the details and recite entire passages verbatim. Duras got to the part where Julia pretended to fall and secretly handed a note with the words “I love you” to Winston. Duras’s retelling was so lively that she captivated everyone. Artemis was especially absorbed in the story, and didn’t notice Arvardan’s eyes, which never left her.

“The author of Nineteen Eighty-Four predicted the progress of totalitarianism, but could not predict the progress of technology.” Wagner gave his opinion as Duras paused for a drink. Arvardan thought that Wagner’s appearance belied his quickness: he was a very perceptive technocrat.

“In Oceania, it was still possible to pass secret notes to each other and express one’s hidden thoughts. But now things are different. The appropriate authorities have forced all of us to live on the Web, where even if we wanted to pass secret notes to each other the Web Regulators would see everything. There is no place to hide. And in real life? We still have to contend with the Listener.” Wagner knocked his cigar against his thighs. “To put it simply: technology is neutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”

“This seems like the pronouncement of some philosopher,” Artemis said, winking at Arvardan. She retrieved some cookies from a drawer and handed them to everyone.

“Isn’t this just like how the bits are just 1’s and 0’s, but some will make them into useful tools, while others will make them into malicious viruses?” Arvardan said. Wagner snapped his fingers happily. “Very good, Wang Er. That’s exactly it. You are a credit to programmers.”

Duras looked at the clock hanging on the wall, and reminded the other four that time was up. The Talking Club could not meet for too long each time. The longer their Listeners remained shielded and off the grid, the greater the risk of exposure.

“All right. Let’s take the final half-hour to complete today’s activities.”

Artemis cleaned away the empty cups on the table, and Lancelot and Wagner both got up to stretch out their shoulders and backs, a bit sore from sitting for so long. Only Duras remained seated without moving.

“Activities? What activities?” Arvardan asked. What would the Talking Club do other than talk?

“Oh, right. We do have other activities.” Artemis moved her bangs out of the way, and gave him a seductive smile. “We still have to have frank exchanges with each other.”

“Frank exchanges?”

“Yes, fucking, to speak plainly.”

Arvardan’s face turned white, and his breathing quickened. His stomach felt as if it had just been injected with air chilled to thirty degrees below zero. He couldn’t believe his ears.

Of course, the appropriate authorities did permit sexual activities, but only between married couples. And there was a complex set of algorithms that computed the legally permitted frequency and lengths of their couplings based on the couple’s age, physical health, income level, professions, environment, climate, and record of rule-violations. As for unmarried individuals such as Arvardan, it was completely illegal to engage in any sexual activity whatsoever (including masturbation) or to read or view any material related to sex—all immoral words having been eliminated from the List of Healthy Words in any case.

“The Talking Club has freedom of speech, as well as the freedom to go to bed with anyone,” Artemis said without any embarrassment. “We talk to each other, and then choose whoever we like to make love with, just as we choose to speak the words that we like.”

Lancelot saw the awkward expression on Arvardan’s face. He walked over and lightly clapped Arvardan’s shoulders. He said, gently, “Of course, we won’t force anyone. This is all built on the foundation of consenting adults. I still have to leave early to pick up my kids. You have just the right number without me.”

Arvardan’s face flushed bright red. He felt hot, like the CPU in his computer during the summer. He couldn’t even lift his eyes to look at Artemis. He had desired female company for so long, but this was the first time he had been so close to that goal.

Lancelot said his goodbyes to everyone. Artemis left the bedroom to Wagner and Duras, and took the hand of Arvardan, who was close to panicking, and led him to another bedroom. This one clearly belonged to Artemis herself. The room was appointed simply, very neat and clean.

Artemis took the initiative. Under her seductive ministrations, Arvardan gradually let himself go, and allowed the primitive desires hidden deep within his heart to come out. He had yearned for any kind of release from his dry, boxed-in life by imagining the smooth, mellow voice of a real woman, and now his dreams were finally coming true. Arvardan did not know if there was a distinction between his desire for her and his desire to say “Fuck you, you sonovabitch,” but now was not the time for analysis.

When he woke up, he saw that Artemis was lying beside him, her naked body like a white jade statue. Even in sleep, her pose was beautiful. He lifted himself, yawned, and then Artemis opened her eyes.

“Feels good, doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes….” Arvardan didn’t know what else to say. He paused, then said hesitantly, “Before, with Lancelot and Wagner, did you also…ummm, what I mean is, like we did just now?”

“Yes,” Artemis said, gently. She sat up, her hair hanging over her shoulder to cover her chest. Her forthrightness confused Arvardan. There was an uncomfortable lull in the room, and then Artemis broke the silence: “You remember the story today? The woman in the story handed the man a note that said, ‘I love you.'”

“Yes,” Arvardan said.

“The word ‘love’ does not exist in the List of Healthy Words promulgated by the appropriate authorities.” Artemis’s eyes were filled with regret and loss.

“I love you,” Arvardan said, without thinking. He knew that it was possible to say anything he wanted in this room.

“Thank you.” Artemis gave him a perfunctory smile. She put on her clothes and hurried Arvardan to do the same. Arvardan was a bit disappointed. She had not responded as enthusiastically as he had wished, but as though what he had just said was not all that important.

By now Duras and Wagner had already left. Artemis walked him to the door, handed him his Listener, and then reminded him, “Once outside, remember not to mention anything about the Talking Club or anyone here. Outside of the Talking Club, we are strangers.”

“I understand,” Arvardan said. He turned to leave.

“Wang Er.”

Arvardan turned at her words. Before he knew what was happening, two soft lips covered his lips, then a low voice sounded by his ear. “Thank you. I love you too.”

Arvardan felt his eyes grow wet. He put on the Listener, opened the door, and walked back into the suffocating world. But now he was in a very different mood from when he had first showed up.

After this, Arvardan’s mental condition clearly improved. He carefully treasured the joy of having a secret club. Every week or two weeks, the five members met. They talked, sang, or listened to Duras tell the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Arvardan enjoyed frank exchanges with Artemis a few more times, and occasionally did the same with Duras. Now he had two personas: one was Arvardan, who existed in real life and on the Web, and the other was Wang Er, member of the Talking Club.

At one meeting, Arvardan asked, “Are we the only ones who gather to talk in private in the whole State?”

“It is said that there are some places in the State, far from the Capital and deeply hidden in the mountains, where the truly radical not only gather to talk, but organize for violence. They shout as they rush at the State’s agents, and even curse at the firing squads as they are executed,” Wagner said.

“Can we join them?” Arvardan asked.

“Only if you are willing to give up your safe and still-comfortable life. The radicals live in places so desolate that except for free speech there is nothing else, not even enough clean water,” Wagner said, a little coldly.

Arvardan flinched and did not pursue the topic further. He certainly desired talk, but not to the point where he was willing to give up all that he had, little though it was. Distilled water was still better than no water. The Talking Club provided sufficient nourishment to sustain the dried husk of his spirit. Bottom line: he was easily satisfied.

At another meeting, the topic of conversation turned to sensitive words. Arvardan remembered that long ago—his memory was growing hazy—the appropriate authorities had actually issued a List of Sensitive Words. People who ran the various Web sites were told to refer to it secretly in administering the sites. He was not sure how that system had evolved into the present one. That day, Wagner brought a bottle of wine for the occasion and was in good spirits. He explained to them the history of the “shielding” system. As a Web Regulator, he had access to the historical records for this process.

Initially, the State only shielded certain sensitive words, but the State quickly discovered that this was essentially useless. Many simply mixed in special characters or numbers or misspelled words to get around the inspection system. The appropriate authorities had to respond by trying to shield these variant spellings. But, as everyone knew, the combinations of different characters to approximate the appearance of different words were virtually limitless. Provided you had some imagination, it was always possible to come up with a novel combination and get your meaning across. For example, the word “politics” could be written as “polit/cs,” “政itics,” “pol/itic$,” etc., etc.

After the appropriate authorities finally caught on to the problem, they took a new tack. Since it was not possible to filter out all possible combinations of characters that might spell out a word, the solution was to forbid the use of anything except real dictionary words. This procedure was initially very successful. The number of rule-violators went down significantly. But very soon people discovered it was possible to use puns, homonyms, or rhyming slang to continue to express the same dangerous ideas. Even if the appropriate authorities filtered out all sensitive words and all possible puns and homonyms with those words, it was useless. Imaginative citizens gave their creativity free rein, and used metaphor, metonymy, analogy, etymology, rhyming slang, and other rhetorical tricks to substitute non-sensitive words for sensitive ones. The human mind was far more creative than the computer. The computer might shield off one path, but the people had many more paths to choose from.

This contest, under the surface, seemed to go the way of the people. But then, a man who could think outside the box appeared. It was unclear who he really was: some said that he was the chief administrator at the appropriate authorities; others said that he was a dangerous man who had been arrested for using too many sensitive words. He was the cause of the turn in the tide of the battle between the State and the people.

He suggested to the appropriate authorities that the regulations should no longer explain what was forbidden. Instead, the regulations should set forth what could be said, and how to say it. The appropriate authorities immediately took this advice, and issued new regulations. The List of Sensitive Words was eliminated, and in its place was the List of Healthy Words.

This time, the people were on the losing side. In the past, they had delighted in playing cat-and-mouse games with the appropriate authorities on the Web and in daily life. But now the appropriate authorities had them by the throat, since the entire framework and building blocks of language were now under their control.

Nonetheless, the people refused to give up. They began to select words from the List of Healthy Words and use them in novel combinations to express illegal meanings. For example, writing “stabilize” twice in a row meant “topple,” “stabilize” plus “prosperity” meant “shield.” The appropriate authorities had to keep an eye on this sort of trend, and, day after day, eliminate more and more words from the List of Healthy Words to prevent their use in these new roles.

“So long as the world even contained two words or even two letters, then it would be possible to continue the free exchange of ideas—you know Morse code?”

Wagner paused, drained his cup, and gave a satisfied burp.

“But, the price for this war is the loss of language. Our ability to express ourselves continues to get poorer, and more dry and banal. More and more, people will choose silence. But this is a good thing as far as the appropriate authorities are concerned.” Lancelot had a worried expression on his face, and rhythmically knocked against the desk. “If you think about it, isn’t it the people’s desire for freedom the very thing that’s pushing language to the edge of death? Ironic, isn’t it? The appropriate authorities will have the last laugh.”

“No, no. They will not understand the emotion behind laughter,” Wagner said.

“Actually, I think the appropriate authorities have always operated in a state of fear. They are terrified that people will have the use of too many words, and express too many thoughts, making their control difficult,” Artemis put on the stiff, cold expression she wore for work, and imitated the common speech pattern: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!”

Duras, Lancelot, and Wagner all burst into laughter. The only one who didn’t laugh was Arvardan. He was stuck on the last thing Lancelot had said: in the war between the people and the appropriate authorities, the final conclusion was the death of language. Then the Talking Club was nothing more than a chance to enjoy the brief, final quiet moment that came from pulling shut the curtains on the windows of a train speeding toward the edge of a cliff.

Duras could not attend the frank exchange phase of the Talking Club that time because it was her time of the month, and she left early. Artemis washed the cups and smiled at the three men: “Should we try a three-on-one?”

Lancelot patted Arvardan on the shoulder. “I have some things I want to discuss with Wang Er. We’ll stay here a bit.” Artemis took Wagner to the other bedroom. Arvardan was confused, unsure of what Lancelot wanted.

Lancelot sat back on the couch. The engineer’s expression became serious. “Wagner has told you about the radical organizations?”

Arvardan nodded.

“What do you think of them?”

“I admire them. But I’m not sure if it’s necessary to go that far. Men cannot live on words alone.” Although Arvardan had never been to the mountains, he had heard plenty about their desolation.

Lancelot laughed bitterly and drained the coffee cup in front of him. “I was once a member of the radicals. But now I’m a deserter.”

Arvardan stared at him.

“In the beginning, I had lots of ideals. I went to the mountains and joined them. But when the rush of freedom had passed, what followed was only constant deprivation and suffering. I wavered and finally abandoned my friends, snuck back to the Capital, and now I hide in a girl’s bedroom, chat, fuck, and drink coffee, and say I’m satisfied with my life.”

“You regret leaving?”

“My regret is not what’s important.” Lancelot handed a piece of paper to him. The paper was thin, light, and had a single address written on it.

“Memorize it and swallow the paper,” Lancelot said. “This is how you get to the mountains and get in touch with them. If you change your mind about your life, you can go any time.”

“Have you given this to the others too?”

“No. The Talking Club is enough for the rest of us. But something is different about you. You remind me a lot of the younger me. Though you look quiet, inside you there is a dangerous spark. I have lost the ambition and the will to change the world, but I do not want to see everyone become like me.”

“But I—”

“You don’t need to promise me anything. This is only an option, that’s all.”

After returning home from the Talking Club, Arvardan lay on his cot with his hands under his head, and sank into thought. He was infatuated with Artemis and could not help himself. Arvardan envied Winston from Duras’s telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He and Julia had their own room, a world that belonged only to the two of them.

(He also thought about what Lancelot had said to him about the radicals, but soon he put it out of his mind—the image of radicals hiding in the mountains was simply not as alluring as the body of Artemis.)

Once, when he was engaging in a “frank exchange” with Artemis, he had revealed his thoughts to her. She didn’t answer him directly, but only said that the relationship between them could not go beyond what they had—the limit of what was possible. The appropriate authorities would not be napping forever. “We can only compress our emotional lives into the weekly meetings of the Talking Club. It’s already a great luxury,” she said, as she gently stroked his chest. “In the Talking Club, we are Artemis and Wang Er. But any other time, you are ARVARDAN19842015BNKF, and I am ALICE19387465BJHD.”

Arvardan could only sigh in response. He really shouldn’t have asked for more.

Along with his emotions, the Web also changed. Ever since he had joined the Talking Club, Arvardan had gradually begun noticing some of the hidden aspects of the Web. Just as Wagner had said, the war between the people and the appropriate authorities never ended. Always, thought and speech leaked from the cracks.

Arvardan noticed that within the formulaic emails and BBS forum posts were hidden many details that were worth paying attention to, just like his “title.” There were all kinds of codes and hidden meanings. These puzzles came from different individuals, and the format and decoding technique differed for each. Arvardan didn’t know what was hidden behind some of the codes, but one thing was certain: the Talking Club was not the only underground gathering. Wagner was right: always, individuals were attempting to use “healthy” words to express “unhealthy” thoughts.

In the past, Arvardan had only vaguely felt that he was being constrained, but now he could see clearly the pulsing arteries and veins of this system, and the various tricks played on him by the appropriate authorities. The freedom that he enjoyed at the Talking Club only made him even more aware of the lack of freedom in his life.

“Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”

At every meeting, the three male members would shout this curse out loud. They understood very well that this had no effect on the appropriate authorities, but they loved the feeling the curse brought them.

One week, Arvardan was particularly busy. His colleague, for unknown reasons, had been shielded. This meant that the whole project fell on his shoulders. The project involved designing a piece of software, for the appropriate authorities, which would be used to control the energy distribution for a new, high-powered, active Listener. (It was unusual for Arvardan to be told this much, but since his colleague was gone, his superiors had to give him the bigger picture.) The software was complex, and he had to spend more than twelve hours a day working in front of the computer, only pausing to eat, take a drink of distilled water, or nap briefly on his cot when his body could no longer take the abuse. His room was filled with the stench of sweaty socks and shirts.

Coincidentally, the heating system in his room failed. The grey radiators became ice cold and no longer circulated hot water. Arvardan checked them and realized the problem wasn’t with the pipes. Since his neighbors were suffering the same fate, it meant that the heating system was failing as a whole. The one positive effect of this failure was that it reduced the stench in his room. The negative effect, however, was that his room turned into an ice cellar. The low temperature covered everything in the already-uncomfortable room with an additional layer of frost. The only source of warmth in the room was the computer. Arvardan put on all his winter clothes, crawled into bed, and pointed the exhaust fans of the computer towards him.

The appropriate authorities decided that “heat” and “furnace” and other similar words were also temporarily sensitive words, so Arvardan had no way of drafting a complaint to the heating supply agencies. All he could do was to wait quietly. Other than his fingers moving over the keyboard, he tried to remain very still, so as to conserve body heat. On the fourth day after the heating system failed, the radiators finally began to clatter and rattle with the sound of hot water flowing through them. The room warmed up again, and “heat” and “furnace” and similar words returned to the List of Healthy Words. So emails and BBS forum posts were filled with sentiments like “We congratulate the appropriate authorities for restoring heat so quickly to bring warmth to the people in need!” and “The people’s government loves the people!” etc.

But this was too late for Arvardan. He fell sick with a cold, a terrible cold. His head hurt as though someone had shot a dumdum bullet into his skull. All he could do was to lie on his bed and wait for the doctor. The doctor arrived at his home, put him on an IV, gave him some nameless pills, and told him to rest. This sickness lasted several days, and he had to give up that week’s Talking Club meeting. His body just wasn’t up for it, and Arvardan thought he was going to die.

Arvardan lay on his bed, filled with regret. The Talking Club was his only joy in life, and now he couldn’t even go. He covered his head with his blanket and thought, Would Wagner bring something special to the meeting this time? Would Lancelot bring his two children? And Artemis…. If Arvardan weren’t there, who would she have a “frank exchange” with? Wagner or Lancelot? He also thought about Duras. At the last meeting, Duras had reached the point in the story where Winston told Julia, in their secret meeting room, “We are the dead.” Julia also said, “We are the dead.” And a third voice then said, “You are the dead.”

Duras had stopped when she got to this point. Arvardan had desperately wanted to know that happened next. Who was the third voice? Was it the Party? Would Winston and Julia be arrested? What was going to happen to them?

“Let it be a cliffhanger,” Artemis said to him. “Then the whole next week our lives will be spent in the joy of anticipation.” And then the two went back to the joy of frankly exchanging.
Arvardan’s sickness lasted ten days before he recovered. The first thing he did after he felt well enough was to get up and look at the calendar on the wall. Today was Sunday, a Talking Club meeting day. Arvardan had missed one meeting, and he felt like a man dying of starvation. Even in his sleep he dreamed of talking at the Talking Club.

Arvardan washed his face and carefully shaved off his thick stubble with a rusty razor. He brushed his teeth and smoothed down his bed hair with a towel and some warm water. Due to his sickness, the appropriate authorities had issued him some extra supplies, including two croissants, two ginger beers, and a packet of fine sugar. He wrapped these carefully in a plastic bag, and put the package inside his coat pocket to bring to the Talking Club to share with everyone.

Arvardan got off the bus, felt for the package hidden inside his coat, and walked towards the Simpson Tower. Halfway there, he lifted his head, and an icy chill seized his heart, forcing him to stop in his tracks.

Something was very wrong.

He looked up to the fifth floor. Before, the window from Artemis’s apartment that faced the street had been covered by pink curtains, but now the curtains were pulled to the sides, and the window was wide open. If there was a meeting of the Talking Club today, Artemis would never have left the shielding curtains open. And keeping the windows open was odd, period. In the Capital, the air outside was terribly murky. No one would have opened the windows to let in “fresh air.”

There was no Talking Club today. Something else was going on. Arvardan stared at the window, and his heart began to beat furiously. He took his hand out of his pocket, put a cigarette in his mouth, then leaned against a utility pole, and forced himself to be calm so as not to raise the suspicion of passing pedestrians. Suddenly he saw something that made him almost faint. A single idea filled his mind.

“There would be no meeting of the Talking Club this week. There will never be a meeting again,” he mumbled to himself, his face the color of ashes.

He saw a contraption that looked like a radar dish, hidden in a corner on this side of the street. Arvardan knew exactly what this was. It was what he had been designing the software for: the new, high-powered, active Listener. The device was capable of sending out active electromagnetic waves to capture vibrations made by voices against walls and windows from a distance, and examine such speech for sensitive words.

If such a device had been installed right near Artemis’s home, then that meant the Talking Club was completely exposed to the view of the appropriate authorities. The active Listener’s penetrating waves would easily pierce through the lead curtains, and transmit the Club members’ words verbatim to the ears of the appropriate authorities.

This invention defined a new era. The appropriate authorities no longer had to wait passively for warnings. Instead, they could at any time actively inspect any speech made by anyone. Arvardan could easily imagine what had happened next. Everything that Artemis and the others said was recorded by the appropriate authorities. Then the police broke into her apartment and arrested all the members of the Talking Club who were present. After they conducted a search, all that was left was the empty room and the empty windows.

Arvardan felt a knife was being twisted in his heart. He did not think that he was fortunate to have escaped capture. His stomach churned, and nausea rose from his stomach to his mouth. He wanted to vomit, but he couldn’t—”vomit” was itself a sensitive word. His body, only just recovered, could not take the hit. He began to shake as though he was suffering chills.

He dared not continue forward. He turned around, boarded another bus, and shut his mouth even tighter. When Arvardan returned to his own building, he saw that another active Listener was being installed nearby. The dark antenna extended into the sky, and along with the other antennas around the Capital, it wove an invisible, giant Web in the sky that covered everything.

He dared not stop to look. Keeping his head low, he walked past the active Listener, and returned home without stopping. Then he hid his face in the pillow, but dared not cry out loud. He couldn’t even say, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch.”

After that, Arvardan’s life returned to normal—just like before, it was stagnant, restrained, passionless, healthy, and without any vulgar joys. Lancelot had said that the result of the war was that the people’s desire for freedom would push language to the edge of death. The death of the Talking Club led to the deletion of “talking,” “opera,” “frank,” and “exchange” from the List of Healthy Words.

Although it was still possible to use numbers, the number “1984” was shielded. One morning, without any warning, Arvardan was simply assigned a new Web Access Serial that no longer contained that string of numerals. This also meant that programmers like Arvardan had to constantly ensure that their programs did not compute illegal numbers. This added greatly to the workload, and Arvardan was even more exhausted.

What happened later in Nineteen Eighty-Four Arvardan would never know. Duras, the only one who did know, had disappeared completely. So what happened to Winston and Julia would forever be a mystery: like the fate of Lancelot, Wagner, Duras, and Artemis.

He worried the most about Artemis. Every time he thought of that name, Arvardan could not control how depressed he became. What happened to her? Was she completely shielded? If that was the case, then the only trace she left in this world would be a pseudonym in the memory of a programmer.

Three weeks after the disappearance of the Talking Club, everything remained calm. No one came after Arvardan. He thought maybe it was because the others had refused to give up any information about him. Or maybe it was because they didn’t really know who he was—the person they knew was a programmer named Wang Er. In the Capital there were thousands of programmers, and Wang Er was just a pseudonym.

Life went on peacefully. No, to be precise, there was one bit of difference. That would be the List of Healthy Words: words disappeared from it at a faster and faster pace. Every hour, every minute, words vanished from it. As the pace of revision for the List quickened, emails and BBS forum posts became more and more vapid and banal. Since people had to use an extremely limited set of words to express an inexpressibly wide range of thoughts, everyone more and more preferred silence. Even the secret codes and hidden clues became fewer.

One day, Arvardan lifted his head from the computer. He stared at the grey, hazy sky outside the window, and his chest spasmed. He coughed in pain, and drained the distilled water from his cup. He threw the disposable plastic cup into the trashcan, also made of plastic. Listening to the dull sound of plastic hitting plastic, he thought his own brain was also filled with a pile of trash. He rapped his knuckles against his skull. Indeed, the same empty dull sound came out.

He put on his coat and filtering mask and walked out the door. He did not wear a portable Listener because it was no longer necessary. The Capital was filled with active Listeners, ever vigilant for the presence of sensitive words. The entire Capital now was just like the Web, healthy and stable.

Arvardan had a legitimate excuse for going outside. He had decided to turn in his permit for BBS service. It was no longer necessary to use this service. Email, BBS forums, Web sites—everything was now the same.

The calendar said it was spring, but outside it was still very cold. Tall, grey buildings stood like a forest of stone in absolute zero. Gusts of wind carrying yellow sand and polluting exhaust gas rushed between them and filled every available space, making it impossible for anyone to escape their suffocating presence. Arvardan put his hands in his pockets, shrank into his coat, and continued to the building for the Department of Web Security.

Suddenly, he stopped, his feet frozen in place, incapable of movement. He saw Artemis, standing under the street light before him and wearing a black uniform. But what a change had come over her! She seemed at least ten years older, her face full of wrinkles. There was none of the vitality of youth left in her. She heard his steps, turned around, and her dark eyes seemed especially empty. She stared past Arvardan into the distance, without focus.

Arvardan had never expected to meet her at this time in this place. His heart, long dormant, now was lit by a few sparks. But his dull and exhausted nerves were incapable of feeling the simple emotion of “excitement.” The two stared at each other for a while. He finally walked next to her, and tentatively moved his lips, as though he wanted to say something to her. But when he took out the latest edition of the List of Healthy Words distributed earlier that day, he found it was empty—even the last word had been shielded by the appropriate authorities.

An address flashed in his mind—luckily, it was not yet possible to shield the mind with technology. Perhaps it was now time to take a trip to the mountains. He had nothing more to lose.

Someone has to do this.

And so, Arvardan maintained his silence. He passed by the expressionless Artemis, and continued his forward progress. His silhouette eventually melted into the equally quiet, grey crowd.

The whole city seemed especially silent.


First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tuesday Fiction: “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong (Part One)

Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ma Boyong from China.  Ma Boyong (in accordance with Chinese custom, Mr. Ma’s name is given in the order of surname followed by given name) is a popular Beijing-based writer of short stories and novels. His work fuses Western convention with traditional Chinese elements. His satire is well known in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. His work has previously appeared in English in TRSF. “The City of Silence” was translated by Ken Liu.

Besides writing and translating speculative fiction, Ken Liu also practices law and develops software for iOS and Android devices. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, TRSF, and Panverse 3, among other places. He lives near Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, artist Lisa Tang Liu, and they are collaborating on their first novel.

The City of Silence

Ma Boyong

translated by Ken Liu

The year was 2046; the place, the Capital of the State.

The State needed no name because, other than it, there were no states. It was just like the Department of Propaganda kept on emphasizing: there are no other states besides the State, and It is who It is, It has always been and always will be.

When the phone rang, Arvardan was sleeping with his face on the desk in front of the computer. The ringing was insistent, sharp. He rubbed his dry eyes and got up unwillingly. His brain felt heavy and slow.

The room was cramped, the air stagnant. The only window was shut tight. Even if the window were open it would not have helped—the air outside was even murkier. The room was only about thirty meters square. An old army-green cot was in the corner, the serial number painted in white on one leg. Right next to the cot was a computer desk made from thin wooden boards, on top of which sat a pale white computer.

The phone continued, now on its seventh ring. Arvardan realized that he had no choice but to take the call.

“Your Web Access Serial, please.” The voice on the other end was not in any hurry. Indeed, it contained no emotional content whatsoever because it was generated by a computer.


Arvardan automatically recited the string of numerals and letters. At the same time, he felt his chest grow even more congested. He did not like these empty electronic voices. Sometimes he thought, wouldn’t it be nice if the voice on the phone belonged to a real woman, smooth and mellow? Arvardan knew this was an unrealistic fantasy. But a fantasy like that still relaxed his body for a few seconds.

“Your application dated October 4th for an account to participate in the BBS discussion forums has been processed. The appropriate authorities have verified that the information you provided was in order. Please come to the processing center within three days with your Personal Identification Card, your Web Access Permit, your Web Access Serial Card, and other relevant documentation. You will receive your account user name and password then.”

“Understood. Thank, you.” Arvardan carefully chose his words, pausing between each.

It was time to get some work done. Arvardan sat down in front of the computer and moved the mouse. With a faint electronic pop the screen came alive: “Please enter your Web Access Serial and name.” Arvardan entered the requested information. Immediately the indicator LEDs on the front of the computer case began to blink rapidly, accompanied by the low hum of spinning fans.

Every Web user had a Web Access Serial, without which it was impossible to access the Web. This was the only representation of a user on the Web: it could not be changed or deleted. There was a homomorphism between the Web Access Serials and the names on the Personal Identification Cards that everyone carried. Thus, ARVARDAN19842015BNKF was Arvardan and Arvardan was ARVARDAN19842015BNKF. Arvardan knew that some people with poor memories would print their Web Access Serials on the backs of their shirts.

The appropriate authorities explained that the Real ID Web Access System was designed to make administration of the Web more convenient and rational, and eliminate the serious problems caused by anonymity on the Web. Arvardan was unsure what these “serious problems” were. He had never personally used the Web anonymously, and he knew no one who had—indeed, from a technical perspective, it was impossible for anyone to disguise himself on the Web. The appropriate authorities had given this careful thought.

“The appropriate authorities” was a semantically vague phrase that nonetheless was full of authority and the power to intimidate. It was simultaneously general and specific, and included within its meaning a broad range of references. Sometimes, it referred to the State Web Administration Committee, which had issued the Web Access Serial to Arvardan. Other times, it referred to the server that emailed Arvardan the latest Web access announcements and regulations. Yet other times, it referred to the Web Investigation Section of the Department of Public Security. Still other times, it referred to the State News Agency. The “appropriate authorities” were everywhere and responsible for everything. They would always appear at the appropriate time to guide, supervise, or warn.

Now that the Web was almost equivalent to daily life, it was necessary to be ever vigilant and not allow the Web to become a tool for conspirators seeking to destabilize the State—so said the appropriate authorities.

The computer continued to hum. Arvardan knew this was going to take some time. The computer was issued to him by the appropriate authorities, and he was uncertain about its technical specs and hardware configuration. The case was welded shut and could not be opened.

While waiting, Arvardan ferreted out a plastic cup from the mountain of trash at his feet and filled it with distilled water from the drinking spigot at his side. He swallowed a painkiller with the water. The distilled water went down his throat and settled into his stomach. The empty taste nauseated him.

The speakers on the computer suddenly began to play the national anthem. Arvardan put down the cup and refocused his eyes on the computer screen. This meant that he had signed on to the Web. The screen first displayed a notice from the appropriate authorities: plain white background, black text, 14-point font. The notice described the meaning of using the Web and the latest regulations concerning such use.

The notice quickly disappeared. What followed was a desktop background emblazoned with the slogan: “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!” Another window slowly floated up, containing several links: work, entertainment, email, and BBS discussion forums. The BBS link was grayed out, indicating that choice was not yet available to him.

The operating system was simple and clear. The browser had no place to enter an URL. Only the bookmarks menu, which was uneditable, contained the addresses for a few Web sites. The reason for this was simple: all of these Web sites were healthy and positive. If other Web sites had the same content as these, then, logically, having access to these Web sites alone was sufficient. On the other hand, if other sites had different content, then, logically, those other sites must be unhealthy and vulgar and should not be accessed.

Some said that outside the borders of the State there were other Web sites, but those were only urban legends.

Arvardan first clicked “work.” The screen displayed a menu of Web sites and software related to his work.

As a programmer, Arvardan’s daily duty consisted of writing programs in accordance with instructions from his superiors. The work was boring, but it guaranteed a steady income. He did not know what the source code he wrote would be used for. His superiors never gave him such information.

He tried to continue the work left over from yesterday, but he soon felt he couldn’t concentrate. He tried to entertain himself, but the “entertainment” link only contained Solitaire and Minesweeper. According to the appropriate authorities, these two games were healthy: there was no violence and no sex, and they would not give players criminal desires.

A system alert popped up: “You have new mail.” Arvardan had finally found a reason to pause in his work. He quickly moved the cursor onto the “email” link, clicked, and soon a new window appeared on the screen.

From: WANGHENG10045687XHDI
Subject: Module/Already/Complete, Start/Current/Project?

WANGHENG10045687XHDI was the Serial of a colleague. The body of the email was written with a series of individual words and certain fixed expressions separated by slashes. This was a format suggested by the appropriate authorities. Although modern mainframe computers could now process natural-language digital texts easily, this style of writing was a gesture on the part of the citizen to indicate that he possessed the proper attitude.

Arvardan sighed. Every time he received a new piece of email, he hoped there would be some fresh stimulus to jolt his nervous system, which was growing duller by the day. On some level, he knew that he would be disappointed each time, but he felt that keeping hope alive at least yielded a few seconds of excitement. It was like his wishing that the voice on the phone would be the smooth and mellow voice of a real woman. If he didn’t keep for himself bits of remote, hopeless hope, Arvardan thought he would go mad sooner or later.

Arvardan clicked “reply,” and then opened a text file with the name “List of Healthy Words” in another window. This file contained the words and fixed expressions that the appropriate authorities required every Web user to use. When they wanted to compose emails or use the discussion forums, they must find the appropriate words from this list with which to express themselves. If the filtering software found any Web user using a word not on this list, then the word would be automatically shielded and replaced with the phrase “Please use healthy language.”

“Shielded” was a technical term. A shielded word was forbidden in writing or in speech. Ironically, “shielded” itself was a shielded word.

The list was updated constantly. Every revision meant that a few more words disappeared from the list. This forced Arvardan to exercise his brain to come up with other words to substitute for the words that were shielded. For example, “movement” used to be allowed, but then the appropriate authorities decided that this was a sensitive word, so Arvardan had to use “change of position” to express the same idea.

He referred to the list and quickly composed a response similar in style to the email he had received. The List of Healthy Words forced people to compress as much information as possible into the fewest words, and to eliminate all unnecessary flourishes and figures of speech. The resulting compositions were like that cup of distilled water: flavorless. Arvardan sometimes thought that one day he would become as bleached out as the emails and distilled water because he wrote such emails and drank such water.

Arvardan sent the email but could not save a copy for himself. His computer had no hard drive, and no slots for floppy disks or CDs or even a USB port. Broadband technology had advanced to the point where software applications could be hosted on remote servers, and individual users needed not suffer any speed issues related to remote access. Thus, there was no need for end users to have hard drives or local storage. Every document or program a user wrote, even every movement of the mouse or keystroke, would be automatically transmitted to the public server of the appropriate authorities. This made administration easier.

After completing the email, Arvardan once again fell back into his anxious, listless mood, which he could not express because “tired,” “annoyed,” and other negative words were all dangerous words. If someone wrote an email to others to complain about such feelings, the recipients would only get an email full of “Please use healthy language.”

This was Arvardan’s life. Today was a little worse than yesterday, but should be a little better than tomorrow. But even this description was imprecise, because Arvardan himself was unclear what constituted “a little better” and what constituted “a little worse.” “Better” and “worse” were variables, but his life was a constant, the value of which was “repression.”

Arvardan set aside the mouse, tilted his head back, and gave a long sigh. (At least “sigh” had not yet been shielded.) He wanted to hum a song, but he couldn’t remember any songs. Instead, he whistled a few times, but it sounded like a dog with tuberculosis barking, and he had to stop. The appropriate authorities were like specters that filled the whole room, giving him no space. He was like a man stuck in a quagmire: as soon as he opened his mouth, mud flowed in, so that he could not even scream for help.

He shook his head restlessly a few times, and his eyes happened to fall on the phone. Suddenly, he remembered that he still had to go to the appropriate authorities to finish the application for the BBS permit. He was glad of an opportunity to be temporarily free of the Web. On the Web he was nothing more than the sum of a series of dry numbers and “healthy words.”

Arvardan put on his coat and covered his mouth with a filtering mask. He hesitated for a moment, and then picked up the Listener and put it over his ears. Then he left his room.

The Capital’s streets had few pedestrians. Now that the Web was everywhere, most chores could be done there. Unlike in the primitive past, people no longer needed to go outside the home for the necessities of daily life. The appropriate authorities did not recommend too many outdoor activities, as they caused people to make physical contact with each other, and what happened after that was difficult to control.

The Listener, a portable language-filtering machine, was designed specifically to prevent that sort of thing. When the wearer said or heard some sensitive word, the Listener automatically gave a warning. Every citizen, before leaving home, must put on this device so they could review and critique their own speech and conversation. When people realized that the Listener was present, they often chose silence. The appropriate authorities were attempting to gradually unify life on the Web and life in the physical world, so that they would be equally healthy.

It was November, and the icy wind drove clouds across a leaden, oppressive sky. Along both sides of the street, utility poles stretched out in two rows like dead trees. Pedestrians wrapped themselves tightly in black or grey coats, shrinking into themselves so that they appeared as quick-moving black dots. A thin miasma covered the whole Capital. Breathing this air without a filtering mask would be a challenge.

Has it already been two months since I last left my room? Arvardan thought, as he stood next to the sign for the bus stop.

A tall man in a blue uniform stood next to Arvardan. He looked suspiciously at Arvardan, wrapped in his black coat. Gradually, he shuffled closer, and, with pretended casualness, said to Arvardan:

“You, have, a, cigarette?”

The man enunciated each word, and paused half a second between them. The Listener was not yet sufficiently advanced to adjust to the unique rhythm and intonation of each person. In response, the appropriate authorities required that all citizens speak in this manner, so that it would be more convenient to check if anyone used words outside the regulations.

Arvardan gave him a quick glance, licked his own dry lips, and replied:


The man was disappointed. Unwilling to give up, he opened his mouth again:

“You, have, a, drink?”


It had been a long time since Arvardan had had any cigarettes or liquor. Perhaps it was due to the shortages, a common problem. But something was amiss: Arvardan’s Listener had not issued a warning. In Arvardan’s experience, whenever supplies of cigarettes, liquor, or other necessities suffered shortages, these words would temporarily become sensitive words that had to be shielded until the supply could be restored.

The man seemed exhausted. His puffy red eyes were a common sight these days, a result of long hours spent on the Web. His hair was a mess, and a few days’ growth of stubble surrounded his mouth. A strong moldy smell dissipated from the collar of the shirt under his uniform. It was obvious that he had not been outside for days.

It was only now that Arvardan realized that the man’s ears were unadorned. The space where the silver-grey Listener should have been was empty. Arvardan was stunned, and for a moment he did not know whether to remind the man or pretend that he hadn’t noticed. He thought, perhaps it would be better to report this to the appropriate authorities.

Now the man inched even closer, and desire and yearning radiated from his eyes. Arvardan’s heart squeezed tight, and unconsciously he took a step back. Was he going to get mugged? Or maybe this man was a sex maniac who had repressed his desires for too long? The man suddenly grabbed his sleeve. Arvardan struggled awkwardly but could not pull himself free. The man did not make another move, but gave a loud yelp, and began to speak to Arvardan in a rapid manner that Arvardan was no longer accustomed to.

“I just want to talk to you, just a few sentences. I haven’t spoken in so long. My name is Hiroshi Watanabe. I’m thirty-two years old. Remember, thirty-two. I’ve always dreamed of having a house by a lake, with a small boat and a fishing pole. I hate the Web. Down with the Web Regulators! My wife has been poisoned by the Web. She only calls me by my Web Access Serial. This whole city is an asylum, and in it the stronger inmates govern the weaker inmates, and turn all the sane people into madmen like themselves. Fuck ‘sensitive words.’ I’ve fucking had it….”

The man’s words poured out of him like soda from a bottle that had been shaken and the cap then popped. Arvardan’s Listener beeped continuously. He stared in amazement but had no idea how to respond. Even more worrisome, he discovered in himself a sense of sympathy for the man, the sort of sympathy people who suffered from the same disease had for each other. The man had now gone from complaining to simply cursing, the most raw, direct kind of curses that had long been shielded. It had been five or six years since Arvardan himself had last cursed, and even the last time he had heard such language was four years ago.

But now this man was swearing at him in public, as though he wanted to say every single shielded sensitive word in a single breath. Arvardan’s eardrums began to throb with pain from the decibel level and the constant beeping from the Listener.

Just then, two police vehicles appeared at the end of the street, and, lights flashing all the way, rushed towards the bus stop.

The man was still swearing when five or six officers in full riot gear rushed over and pushed him to the ground, beating him with their batons. The man kicked with his legs, and words poured out of his mouth even faster, and the curses grew even coarser. One of the officers pulled out a roll of tape, and with a sharp “pa” tore off a piece which he stuck over the man’s mouth. Immediately before his mouth was taped, the man raised his voice, and heartily yelled at the policeman, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” Arvardan watched as his expression turned from madness to a contented smile, as though he was intoxicated with the pleasure and release brought about by the swearwords.

The police scrambled to push the man into one of the cars. One of the officers came to Arvardan. “Is, he, your, friend?”

“I, do, not, know, him,” Arvardan responded in the same way.

The policeman stared at him. He took down Arvardan’s Listener and checked its records. There was no record of Arvardan using any sensitive words. He put the Listener back on Arvardan’s ears and warned Arvardan that everything the man had said was extremely reactionary, and he must immediately forget it. Then the officer turned around, and the police left with the arrested man.

Arvardan sighed with relief. Just now he had, for a second, an impulse to scream at the top of his lungs on this empty street, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!”

The street quickly returned to its customary quiescence. Ten minutes later, a bus slowly arrived at the station. The rusty doors opened with a clang, and an electronic female voice filled the empty space inside the bus:

“Passengers, please pay attention and use civilized language. Adhere strictly to the List of Healthy Words as you speak.”

Arvardan wrapped his coat even tighter around himself.

About an hour later, the bus arrived at his destination. The cold wind blew in through the broken windows of the bus, frosting Arvardan’s breath. The coal dust and sand in the wind stabbed at his face. He got up, shook the dust off himself like a wet dog shaking off water, and left the bus.

Arvardan needed to go to the appropriate authorities, the Department of Web Security in this case, responsible for processing BBS permit applications. Located across the street from the bus stop, this was a five-story building, cube-shaped, completely covered in grey concrete. If it weren’t for the few windows, the building would be indistinguishable from a solid block of concrete: hard and dead. Even mosquitoes and bats stayed away.

It was also very difficult to obtain a permit to use the BBS forums. An applicant must go through close to twenty procedures and endure a long investigation process before being granted permission to browse the forums. Only after having had permission to browse the forums for three months could one be granted permission to post in designated forums. As for starting your own BBS, that was impossible.

Despite these obstacles, many used the BBS forums because this was the only place on the Web where one could have some limited conversation. Arvardan had decided to apply for a BBS permit simply out of a vague yet stubborn sense of nostalgia. He didn’t know why he wanted to cause so much trouble for himself. Maybe it was just to bring a sense of excitement to his life. Maybe it was to emphasize the bits of connection between himself and the old times. Maybe it was both.

Arvardan vaguely remembered that when he was a kid, the Web was very different. Not that the technology was different, but the culture. He hoped to remember some of the things from that era through the BBS forums.

Arvardan walked into the building. Inside it was just as cold as outside, and even darker. There were no lights in the hallways. The walls, painted in a bluish white, were pasted over with Web-related regulations, policies, and slogans. Sucking the cold air into his lungs, Arvardan shuddered. Only the crack round the door at the end of the hall let in a sliver of light. On the door was a sign: “Department of Web Security, BBS Section.”

Arvardan did not dwell on the irony that in order to use some virtual functionality of the Web, one had to physically come here to apply.

Once he was behind the door, Arvardan immediately felt a blast of hot air. The heat in this room was turned way up, and Arvardan’s hands, feet, and face, all frozen numb, now tingled and began to itch. He wanted to reach out and scratch himself.

An electronic female voice suddenly burst out of the speakers in the ceiling: “Citizen, please remain still as you wait in line.”

Arvardan put down his hand as though he had been given an electric shock, and respectfully waited where he was. He observed the room he was in: a long and narrow lobby, divided in half by a marble counter that rose in the middle like the Great Wall. A fence made of silver-white poles connected the top of the counter to the ceiling.

“Please proceed to window number eight.”

The counter was so tall that Arvardan could not even look over it to see what was on the other side. But he could hear the sound of someone approaching on the other side then sitting down.

“Please place your application documents in the tray.”

The speaker on top of the counter issued the order. Unexpectedly, the voice this time was different. Even though it was still dry and cold, Arvardan could tell that the voice did not belong to a computer—this was the voice of a real woman. He tried to lift his head even higher, but he could see nothing. The counter was just too tall.

“Please put the documents in the tray.”

There was some impatience in the tone when the voice repeated the order.

Yes, this is the voice of a real woman, Arvardan thought. The electronic female voice was always polite and never had any emotion in it. He put his Personal Identification Card, Web Access Permit, Web Access Serial Card, the record of sensitive word violations, and other similar documentation into a small metallic tray, slid the tray into a slot in the side of the counter, and closed the flap over the slot. Immediately he heard a faint whoosh. He guessed that the person on the other side of the counter—perhaps a woman—had pulled the tray out on her side.

“What is the purpose for your application for BBS service?”

The woman’s voice from the speaker was business-like and professional.

“To, increase, Web, related, work, efficiency; to, create, a, healthy, and, stable, Web, environment; to, better, contribute, to, the, motherland.”

Arvardan paused between each word, knowing that this was only a formality. All he had to do was to give the standard answer.

The other side sank into silence. After about two minutes, the speaker came on again.

“The final procedure has been completed. You now have permission to use the BBS forums.”

“Thank, you.”

With a bang, the metallic tray bounced back out of the slot. In it, a few more pieces of paper had been added to the documents Arvardan had provided.

“The appropriate authorities have issued you a user name and password for the BBS service, an index of available forums, a user guide, a copy of the applicable regulations, and the latest List of Healthy Words. Please also check your email inbox.”

Arvardan stepped forward, took out all the things in the tray, and examined them. He was disappointed to see that his BBS user name was identical to his Web Access Serial. He remembered that when he was little it was possible to pick your own BBS forum user name.

Memories of childhood often were mingled with fairy tales and fantasies, however, and might not match reality. The reality now was that you could only use the user name and password issued by the appropriate authorities. The reason was simple: user names and passwords also could contain sensitive words.

He shoved the papers in his coat pocket. The pieces of paper were actually meaningless, as the electronic copies have been sent to his email already. But the appropriate authorities felt that formal documents on paper were helpful in inducing in users the proper feelings of fear and respect.

He hoped that the speaker in the counter would speak a bit more. But he was disappointed by the sound of someone getting up and leaving. Based on the rhythm of the steps, Arvardan was even more certain that the person on the other side was a woman.

The empty electronic female voice again came from the ceiling: “You have completed the necessary procedures. Please leave the Department of Web Security and return to your work.”
Arvardan wrinkled his nose in disgust, and turned to leave the warm lobby and return to the freezing cold hallway.

On the way home, Arvardan curled up in his seat on the bus without moving. The success of obtaining permission to use the BBS service gave him an illusory sense of excitement. His right hand fingered the documents in his pocket as he tried to remember the sound of that mysterious woman’s voice.

It would be so nice to hear that voice again. At the same time he rubbed his thumb lightly over the piece of paper on top of the stack in his pocket, imagining that this document had been touched also by her slender, graceful, ivory-like fingers. He was so excited that he wanted to yell, “Fuck you, you sonovabitch!” The sound of that man cursing was stuck in his mind, and again and again the curse rose to the tip of his tongue.

Suddenly, his finger felt something out of place on the back of the document. Arvardan looked around him, ascertained that there were no other passengers, and carefully took the document out and flipped it over. He examined it carefully in the light from the bus window.

Arvardan realized that the top right corner of the document had been lightly creased by a fingernail. The crease was so light that if Arvardan hadn’t been fingering it so closely he never would have noticed it. The crease was unusual: it was a straight line, but at the end of the line, not far from it, was another very short crease, as though the person had meant to make a dot. The whole thing looked like an exclamation point, or, if you looked at it from the opposite direction, the letter “i.”

He looked through the other papers, and soon discovered that the other four documents also had similar creases. They were shaped differently, but all seemed to be symbols of some sort. Arvardan recalled the order in which the woman from the speaker had mentioned the documents, and began to write the symbols found on each document in order on the steamed-up bus window:



The bus stopped, and a few passengers got on. Arvardan moved his body to cover the writing on the window. Then, pretending to yawn, he lifted his sleeve and erased the letters.
Arriving home, Arvardan took off his coat and filtering mask, and threw the Listener on the cot. Then he fell onto the cot and buried his head in the pillows. Every time he left home to go outside he felt so exhausted afterward, in part because his weakened physique was no longer used to being outside and in part due to the stress of being with the Listener.

When he woke up, he checked his email. His inbox contained two work-related emails from colleagues and five emails containing the electronic copies of the BBS documents from the Department of Web Security.

Arvardan opened the index of BBS forums. All the forums were officially sanctioned. The forums had different subjects, but all basically revolved around how to better cooperate and respond to State directives and how to build a healthy Web. For example, on one of the computer technology forums, the main topic was how to improve the technology for shielding sensitive words.

Amazingly, one of the forums was about games. In it, the main topic of discussion was an online game about how to help others use healthy words. The player could control a little boy to patrol the streets and see if anyone was using sensitive words. If so, the little boy could choose to go up and criticize the offender or report the offender to the police. The more offenders the little boy caught, the higher the score and the better the rewards.

Arvardan opened a few other random forums. Everyone in them was polite, and spoke very healthy language, just like people outside on the streets. No, it was even worse than on the streets. People on the streets at least had opportunities to perform a few private gestures, like how Arvardan had written “title” on the bus window in secret. But on the BBS forums, even the last bits of privacy of the individual were stripped away. The appropriate authorities could examine every mouse movement, every keystroke, every bit that passed through your computer, and there was nowhere to hide.

Disappointment and a sense of loss overwhelmed Arvardan. He closed his eyes and lay back. He had been so naive to think that the BBS forums might be a little more open, but now it was clear that it was even more suffocating than real life. He was stuck in an electronic quagmire, and he couldn’t breathe. “Fuck you, you sonovabitch” once again rose to the tip of his tongue. The urge to shout was so strong that he struggled to contain himself.

Suddenly, he thought of the mysterious “title.” What did that really mean? Five documents, five emails. Maybe the emails had something hidden in them? Perhaps they had something to do with “title”?

Arvardan turned back to the screen and carefully examined the five emails from the Department of Web Security. He opened the emails and saw that each one had a title in larger font at the top. He arranged the titles in the order indicated by the letters in the word “title,” taking each creased letter as indicating the position its corresponding email’s title should be in.


The first word from each title, when put together, formed a sentence: “Navigate To User Education Forum.”

Arvardan remembered that just now he had indeed seen a forum with the name “User Education Forum.” He clicked the link for that forum, hoping that this was not just some coincidence.

The User Education Forum was an administrative forum. All the posts in it were suggestions or complaints about BBS management. The forum moderator was someone named MICHEAL19387465LLKQ. There were few posts and responses, and the forum had little traffic. Arvardan opened the index of all posts in the forum and clicked open each one. The posts seemed completely random, and he could see no pattern.

Arvardan was disappointed. He seemed to have hit another dead end. But he had not been this excited for so long. He stubbornly kept on staring at the screen, trying to hold onto the sense of discovery and excitement, even if illusory, for just a little while longer.

Suddenly, his eyes focused on the user name of the forum administrator. MICHEAL was not the usual spelling for MICHAEL.

He clicked through the posts in the forum again, and noticed that some of the posts were also posted by user names containing unusual spellings for common names.

Following the pattern from before, he took the initial words from the titles of posts by users with unusually spelled names and arranged them in the order of the number portion of the authors’ user names to form a new sentence:

“Every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B.”

There must be some meaning in this. The documents, the emails, and now the forum posts: three times in a row he had put clues together that led to more clues. This was no mere coincidence. Who had hidden these messages in the official documents from the appropriate authorities? What happened every Sunday at the Simpson Tower, fifth floor, suite B?

Arvardan had finally found the excitement long absent from his life. The novelty of the unknown stimulated his long-numbed nerves. More important, these word games, planted in the middle of official documents from the appropriate authorities, gave him the satisfaction of breathing freely, as though a solid iron mask had been punched through with a few air holes.

Let us build a healthy and stable Web!

Fuck you, you sonovabitch!

Arvardan stared at the desktop background on the computer screen, mouthed the curse silently, and lifted his middle finger to the screen.

For the next few days, Arvardan lived in a state of constant, barely subdued excitement. He was like a kid who was trying to hide a mouthful of candy with an innocent smile, and who, after the adults had turned away, broke into a sly grin, enjoying the feeling of having a secret.

Day after day passed; the List of Healthy Words continued to shrink; the air outside the window grew even murkier. This was the way life was. Arvardan had begun to use the List of Healthy Words as a calendar. If three words had been deleted, that meant three days had passed. When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday.

Arvardan arrived at the Simpson Tower at noon. The clue that had brought him there did not mention a specific time. Arvardan thought it probably made sense to show up around noon. As he arrived, wearing his dark green army coat, the filtering mask, and the Listener, his heart began to beat irregularly. He had imagined all kinds of possibilities for this moment, and now that the secret to the mystery was about to be revealed, he was nervous. No matter what happens here, it can’t be worse than my life now, Arvardan thought.

He walked into the building, and noticed that there were very few people here as well. The empty halls were filled only with his steps and their echo. An old elevator car had advertisements for “Let’s build a beautiful home on the Web,” and a poster with a man whose face was imbued with truth and justice. The background of the poster was the Flag, and the man pointed at the viewer with his right index finger. Above him was the slogan: “Citizen, I need you to use healthy language.” Arvardan turned away, and saw that the other wall of the elevator car had the exact same poster. There was nowhere to hide.

Luckily, by then he had arrived at the fifth floor. The elevator doors opened, and opposite was the door to suite B. The door was green, the paint chipped, and splats of ink covered the door frame.

Arvardan took a deep breath, and pressed the doorbell.

Arvardan thought the rhythm of the steps within the door sounded familiar, as though he had heard it somewhere. The door cracked open halfway, and a young woman held onto the doorknob as she filled the doorway, leaning forward to stare at Arvardan. She said, suspiciously:

“Who, are, you, looking, for?”

It was the voice behind the counter at the Department of Web Security, BBS Section. She looked beautiful: hunter-green wool sweater, hair worn short in a tight bun in the typical style, skin so fair it was pale, and lips glowing with the flush of health.

Looking into the woman’s eyes, Arvardan hesitated, and then raised his right hand: “Title.”

Arvardan stared at the woman tensely. If the woman reported his strange behavior to the police, then he would be arrested and interrogated as to why he had gone to a stranger’s home. The crime of “willfully lolling about” was only slightly less serious than the crime of “using sensitive words.”

The woman nodded, barely perceptibly, and carefully gestured with her right hand for him to come in. Arvardan was about to speak, but the woman glared at him, and he swallowed and obediently followed her into the apartment.

Once they were in, the woman shut the door immediately, and then pulled a lead-grey curtain over the doorway. Arvardan blinked anxiously, and looked about him. The apartment had two bedrooms and a living room. The living room had a couch and a coffee table, on top of which there were a few bunches of red and purple plastic flowers. Next to one of the walls was a desk with a computer. A common white wall calendar hung on the wall, but the owner had taken care to decorate its edges with pink paper, giving it a homier feel. Arvardan noticed that the shoe rack next to the door held four pairs of shoes, all of different sizes. This meant that he wasn’t the only guest here today.

Arvardan was still uneasy. Suddenly the woman clapped him lightly on the back, indicating that he should continue inside. The two of them went across the living room, through a short hallway, and arrived at a bedroom. The bedroom door was curtained by the same kind of lead-grey curtain. The woman lifted the curtain and pushed open the bedroom door.

Arvardan saw three smiling individuals in a room decorated with real, fresh flowers. The room was also full of many other antiques that existed only in Arvardan’s memory: an Impressionist painting, a wooden sculpture from Uganda, and a silver candelabra. But there was no computer.

As he hesitated, the woman entered the room. She carefully pulled the curtain closed and shut the door. She turned around:

“Welcome to the Talking Club!”

The Talking Club?


Part Two of “The City of Silence” will appear on Tuesday December 6th.

First published in Chinese in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of Science Fiction World.

November 29, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

The Dragon and the Stars Wins Aurora

The Dragon and the Stars, collecting original sf/f stories from across the Chinese diaspora, and edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi, has won the Canadian Prix Aurora, for best related English book. Charles Tan has a handy page with links to online stories, where available.

Accepting the prize (from L to R): Derwin Mak, author Tony Pi, Eric Choi.

November 24, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Comments Off

Chinese Science Fiction Newsletter: September 2011

If you’re interested in finding out what’s happening in the Chinese science fiction field, you can check out Chinese Science Fiction’s latest newsletter for news. The newsletter is presented in both English and Chinese. Here’s an excerpt:

Second XINGYUN Awards

The Second XINGYUN Awards closed nominations on August 16 and commenced the voting phase on September 1. To increase exposure, voting is taking place on three websites. The awards will also conduct a “XINGYUN Forum” around the theme “Chinese SF in the Three Body Era.” A new mobile platform has been made available to handle mobile rights for World Chinese Science Fiction Association members. The awards, forum, and member convention will take place on November 12 inChengdu.




October 20, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Comments Off

Short Story Highlight: “The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan

Great news and major kudos to Clarkesworld Magazine for publishing in their latest issue the short story The Fish of Lijiang by Chinese author Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu. The author will also have a new short story, “The Tomb”, in the forthcoming Apex Book of World SF 2.

Two fists are before my eyes, bright sunlight reflecting from the backs of the hands.

“Left or right?”

I see myself reaching out with a child’s finger, hesitating, and pointing to the one on the left. The fist flips, opens. Empty.

The fists disappear and reappear.

“One more chance. Left or right?”

I point to the one on the right.

“You’re sure? Want to change your mind?”

My finger hesitates in the air, waving left, then right, like a swimming fish.

“Final answer? Three … two … one.”

My finger stops on the left.

The fist flips, opens. Other than the bright sunlight, the hand is empty.

A dream?

I open my eyes. The sun is bright, white, and hurts my eyes. I’ve been dozing in this Naxi-style courtyard for who knows how long. I haven’t felt this comfortable in such a long time. The sky is so fucking blue. I stretch until my bones crack.

After ten years, everything here has changed. The only thing that remains the same is the color of the sky.

Lijiang, I’m back. This time, I’m a sick man. – continue reading!

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Comments Off

China Daily on Han Song

Apex Book of World SF contributor Han Song is the subject of a special feature in the China Daily!

A writer in present-day China does not even have to make an effort to imagine the future, as any day-to-day record of urban China’s dramatic transformations is futuristic in itself, Han Song says.

“To be a journalist in present-day China is like inhabiting a science fiction world,” he explains.

Han, who wears several hats – those of a Xinhua journalist, blogger, science fiction writer and sci-fi historian – feels today’s China lends itself to science fiction writing like never before, being “both a pre-industrial and a post-industrial culture”.

While most mainstream literature today focuses on China’s past, sci-fi looks into the future, he says. “And in China, the future is now.”

He comes across as a self-effacing, mild-mannered guy who, given a choice, would love to spend all day burrowing into the mini mountain of sci-fi reads that keep accumulating on his desk.

The softness in his voice and deportment are quite at odds with Han’s ruthless vision of the future in which the conflicts and confusions experienced in a fast-changing culture are not only exaggerated manifold but also fraught with a deep sense of foreboding. – continue reading!

June 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Comments Off

Chinese Steampunk?

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame [Tribeca film Festival] [Wikipedia] has been described as “an exquisitely realized steampunk version of ancient China”:

On the eve of her coronation as China’s first female ruler, Wu Zetian’s colossal Buddha statue is nearing completion when a series of mysterious events threaten to derail the empress’ rise to power. Two high-ranking officials burst into flames after inspecting the statue, leading to suspicions of foul play targeted toward the empress. On the counsel of her spiritual advisor (who takes the form of a talking deer), the empress summons legendary sleuth and martial arts expert Detective Dee out of exile in prison to solve the case. With the help of the beautiful and deadly Jing’er and albino imperial guard Pei, Dee sets out to crack the case… and crack a few skulls along the way.

Here’s the trailer – what do you think?

April 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 7 Comments

Chinese Space Propaganda Art!

Coverage of the Chinese Space Programme, with some amazing artwork from the 1960s onwards!

The succesful launching of the Shenzhou V, the Divine Vessel, on 15 October 2003, withtaikonaut Yang Liwei on board, marked a giant leap forward in the Chinese space program that saw its origins in the 1960s. With this result, China joined the club of space-travelling nations that previously had been limited to the United States and the Soviet Union/Russian Federation. A previous Chinese launching , in 1970, had already brought a satellite into orbit that endlessly broadcast Dongfang hong (东方红, The East is Red), not the national anthem, but probably one of the best known Chinese tunes, eulogizing Mao Zedong. The success of this mission was solely ascribed to the genius of Mao Zedong Thought, which had guided the scientists and workers. In reality, Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), a rocket engineer formerly attached to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, U.S., who had been expelled in the 1950s for suspected Communist sympathies, designed China’s first missiles, earning him the accolade of being the father of the space program. – continue reading and to see more art!

Little guests in the Moon Palace, early 1970s

February 28, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

The Return of Political Science Fiction in China?

Xujun Eberlein writes for Foreign Policy Magazine about a new Chinese SF novel that is taking China by storm.

In the euphoric Beijing of 2013, Starbucks is Chinese-owned and called “Starbucks Wangwang.” Its trademark drink is Longjing Latté, named for a famed Chinese tea. It is a place where Mr. Chen, an immigrant from Hong Kong, feels comfortable escorting a marginalized woman named Xiaoxi, the secret love of his youth. After running into Xiaoxi in a Beijing bookstore, their first encounter in many years, Mr. Chen asks her whether she had gone abroad. “No,” she replies.
“No is good,” Chen nods. “As everyone says, no place is better than China nowadays.”
“You are joking,” Xiaoxi says.
Her sullen mood seems at odds with the jubilant crowd around them. As she suddenly departs, he notices two men smoking nearby who have been following her.
So opens an early scene from The Prosperous Time: China 2013, a hotly controversial Chinese science-fiction novel. Written by 58-year-old Hong Kong novelist Chen Guanzhong, who has lived and worked in Beijing for much of his life, China 2013 presents an ambivalent vision of China’s near future: outwardly triumphant (a Chinese company has even bought out Starbucks), and yet tightly controlled. There is a mood of mounting tension, here evident as a woman with dissenting thoughts is followed by secret police.
The novel, first published in Hong Kong in late 2009, caused quite a stir on Chinese websites early this year. For instance, Hecaitou, one of the most influential bloggers in the country, wrote in January that the book “once and for fall settles the majority of Internet quarrels” on what China’s tomorrow will be like. At the time, the book was only available in Hong Kong. But after interest grew apace in Chinese cyberspace, the author himself “pirated” his rights from his own publisher in Hong Kong to let Chinese mainlanders read it online for free. Since February, numerous digital versions of the novel have circulated and sparked heated discussions on the Chinese Internet. – continue reading.

August 13, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Comments Off

SF Author Wang Guozhong Passes Away

The Chinese Science Fiction Newsletter reports that SF author Wang Guozhong has passed away:

Wang Guozhong, former director of the Shanghai Publication Bureau, head of the Research Institute of Culture and History, and author of the science fiction story “Black Dragon Goes Missing” died at the age of 83. Black Dragon Goes Missing was the most important SF collection of the 1960s, and the criticism its content drew from the Japanese government made it the internationally controversial work in the history of Chinese SF. Wang was a lead planner and editor of the popular science series A Hundred Thousand Whys, which occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese popular science writing.

former director of the Shanghai Publication Bureau, head of the Research Institute of Culture and History, and author of the science fiction story “Black Dragon Goes Missing” died at the age of 83. Black Dragon Goes Missing was the most important SF collection of the 1960s, and the criticism its content drew from the Japanese government made it the internationally controversial work in the history of Chinese SF. Wang was a lead planner and editor of the popular science series A Hundred Thousand Whys, which occupies a pivotal position in the history of Chinese popular science writing.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off


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