Folding Beijing is an awesome novelette, and it makes me so sorry not to remember where I heard about it. I know that what decided me to read it is the translation by Ken Liu, whose short stories I enjoyed more than once (The Hidden Girl collection and in a novelette of his: The man who ended history). It’s only when I finished reading the novelette that I learnt that Hao Jingfang is a young woman, that she wrote this while studying at Tsinghua University and that she is the first female Chinese writer to have won the prestigious Hugo award. I read the story without knowing all that, but now that I do, I’m even more impressed and I humbly think that this award is very well deserved!
Folding Beijing is set in a world divided in 3 classes of citizens: the rich, the middle-class and the underworld, that lead separate lives, not only spatially but temporally. When one class of people goes to sleep, their city folds itself into the ground and it’s now time for another class to unfold above ground and get up. Everything in this division is unequal, the rich get the most of the 24 hours and enjoy sunlight, while the underclass live in cramped, dirty lodging and live only in darkness. In the story, one man from the underworld sets to “go over the fold” and sneak into the privileged world for a risky, but rewarding mission.
The premise of the story is almost more interesting that the character’s quest itself. There are so many relevant themes in the idea of spatial and temporal segregation. Some themes are nothing new ([spoiler alert!] like the idea that blue collar workers are more and more replaced by robots), but the way it is exploited in this folded world felt fresh to me. Of course, the story is not explicitly taking on a political and social stance against the current situation in China, but it’s difficult to avoid thinking about it.
What was also great about Folding Beijing is that it is not any anonymous, futuristic, slightly American city that gets folded and unfolded, I still got a sense of old Beijing in the first part when we discover the “third space” that lives during the night. I’m no big reader of Sci-fi, but there’s obviously a great potential to explore here. (And I want to also explore if Sci-fi may be an outlet for Chinese expression that might not be easy to let out in other realms). I have not yet tried famous Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, but I should probably take a leap of faith and venture into unfamiliar territory. Any recommendation?