Sunday, January 22, 2017

Short Fiction Month: The Fish of Lijiang - Chen Qiufan

The Fish of Lijiang by Chen Qiufan is another of the forty or so short stories listed on his website that Ken  Liu has translated from Chinese. It is one of the earlier ones. The English translation first appeared in Clarkesworld in August of 2011. The original is a few years older, it appeared in 2006. Liu included it in his anthology of Chinese science fiction Invisible Worlds, which is where I read it. Only about ten of Chen's stories are available in English at the moment, but Liu states in the author bio that he is working on a translation of one of Chen's novels. It is expected to be released later this year.

Stressed and exhausted from the corporate rat race, a management assistant is sent to rehabilitate in the city of Lijiang in the south-west of China, not too far from the border with Burma. He knows very well that he shows all the signs of an approaching burnout but sees this forced vacation as a failure on his part nonetheless. He has been to Lijiang before and notices how it has changed. The exterior of a commercial tourist trap hides a deeper secret however. When he meets a woman sent to the city to rehabilitate as well, he starts to figure out the real reason why he has been sent there.

This story is told from the first person. The main character is not in the best of moods. Besides feeling he has failed at his job, he is also disappointed in how the city of Lijiang  has changed. There is a series of comments on the way this cultural heritage site is treated as an amusement park. Some people would see this as criticism or a warning (as the story is set in the future) of China's policy in this area. Despite the dim view the main character takes, Lijiang seems like an interesting place to visit.

The situation he is in  is very recognizable to the western reader. Look around at work and you'll probably see a few colleagues who have run into this problem in the past, or are on their way there now. The science fictional element in the story is in the cause of the main character's problems. He is in essence used as a Guinea pig. His employer exposes him to a device that causes him to experience time in a different way. It makes him do more in less time but at a price. The way the main character responds to this revelation is where you can tell you are reading a Chinese story. Most western people would be outraged with being experimented on. This is not quite how the main character in this story responds. He heads back to his job for another round of compressed time.

I thought The Fish of Lijiang was an intriguing story, and one that shows great talent. Chen was in his mid-twenties when it was published in Chinese. I'm definitely going to keep an eye out for that novel Liu is translating. Judging from this story, it should be worth reading.

Story Details
Title: The Fish of Lijiang
Author: Chen Qiufan
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Originally published: Clarkesworld Magazine, #59 August 2011
Read in: Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu
Story length: Short Story, approximately 5,000 words
Awards: science fiction and fantasy translation award winner
Available online: Clarkesword

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