FOLDING BEIJING: immanent hope

The next short story reviewed by Rob Weber is “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

I liked this story, but not as much as Alastair Reynolds’ SCALES. There is a similarity of structure, as Lao Dao ascends the scales to higher spaces and descends again. Only this time they are economic and social spaces rather than physico-mathematical ones. The difference is that Lao Dao ascends and descends untransformed, and finds things pretty much the same on all levels of existence.

Lao Dao’s desire is that his daughter Tangtang learn to dance and sing in a proper school, and that his neighbour Ah Bei act like a coy and elegant girl of the highest level, sit quietly and smile demurely. His ideal of femininity is untransformed, despite what he learns, and remains quite conformist. On the other hand he has remained humane and selfless, and was not humiliated or embittered by his experience either. He keeps his lucidity without becoming cynical.

The science fiction does not lie in the folding city. This is a fantasy concept disguised as science fiction. It is made possible by a magical sleeping gas with no side effects that puts people to sleep to be folded away, with no worries about fires from forgetting to turn the gas off, or even needing to pee during the long period of dormancy.

This is a science fiction story based onthe science of  economics, or perhaps one should say political economy. The folding city and the imposed dormancy are dictated by the need to fight unemployment and inflation. The “European” solution of reducing working hours is rejected because it “saps the vitality of the economy”. The dynamic and “vital” solution is to make people sleep more:

“The best way is to reduce the time a certain portion of the population spends living, and then find ways to keep them busy. Do you get it? Right, shove them into the night”.

There is no critique of inequality in this story, it is just taken as a given and then found to be regrettable. The “science” at its base is Western economics fueled with a Communist sensibility, class without class struggle.

There is a Platonic resonance here. Lao Dao leaves his Third Space cavern and ascends to the place where one can see the Sun. The Great Guardian knows that they already have the technology to put the majority of third spacers out of work, but withholds this knowledge out of concern for the ordinary people. Lao Dao gains insight but returns happily into the cavern. His struggle is an immanent one, inside the cavern to make things a little better for his loved ones and neighbours, and he accepts his station in life “philosophically” in this immanent sense.

The protagonist of SCALES mounts to transcendence but returns with war and no insight. It is only the reader that gains the insight of our identity with the other. Lao Dao seems to already have that insight and so he remains unimpressed by those he sees in Second and Third Space, discovering that they have foibles and aspirations like everyone else. So he comes back not with blindness and hostility but insight and solidarity.

This story bears thinking about. My first reaction was that there are no dialectics in this story, no class struggle, just a set of givens. The Western trope would be a revolution, as we are still pre-Revolution. Savloj Zizek claims that the big danger for modern society is “Capitalism with Asian Values”, an false alternative that does not really put an end to inequality, only places a kindly but authoritarian face over the intact system to set some limits. This would seem to describe Beijing’s politico-economic system in the story.

But Hao Jingfang is writing post-Revolution, and for her these “Asian” values are real, and constitute a real alternative to neo-liberalism, the European solution mentioned in the story. Difficult choices have to be made, but the Leader is there to keep the people’s best interests at heart.

Lao Dao does not want war, not even class war, but insight, empathy, and solidarity. His own personal revolution came when he took Tangtang into his life. He has faith that even a poor foundling can become an “elegant young lady” and is ready to do what it takes to make that happen.


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