A Hero Born – Jin Yong

Sometimes you read a book and you realise that you don’t have the right frame of reference to appreciate it fully.  Jin Yong‘s A Hero Born (review copy from Quercus) is just such a book.  This is the first time that this classic of Wuxia fiction has been translated into English.  Anna Holmwood has done a fantastic job of translating the text, but I suspect there are whole layers of meaning and allegory that are invisible to a Western reader without further explanation.

A Hero Born is the first in the Condor trilogy, following two boys in 13th century China.  Before their birth they were bonded to each other by their fathers, who were best friends and comrades in arms.  The boys also become the subject of a rash bet about which school of martial arts can raise the best fighter, with each school pledging to train one of the boys ahead of a competition when they are older.  But an attack on their village saw their fathers killed and their mothers separated.  One flees north and raises her son amongst Genghis Khan’s Mongolian Empire.  The other’s beauty catches the eye of a nobleman who lures her away with the promise of helping her get revenge on her husband’s killer.

It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a literary classic.  It is woven through with Chinese history and it extols the principal Confucian virtues of benevolence, kindness, loyalty, courage and righteousness.  The story principally follows Guo Jing as he grows up in Genghis Khan’s tribe.  He is trained by the Seven Freaks of the South in various aspects of martial arts and weapons, and the novel is riddled through with the names of various moves and techniques.  They aspire to teach him the almost supernatural levels of skill familiar to Western audiences from wuxia films.

The Seven Freaks was where I struggled most with this book.  To a Western reader they appear as grotesques and caricatures, and it is difficult to take them seriously as experts and teachers in their field.  They are easily duped, and spend a lot of time fighting and arguing amongst themselves.  They are not good teachers, and frequently get frustrated with the rather pedestrian Guo Jing.  Yet we are apparently meant to revere and admire them.

Lying at the heart of this book is a story about a kind boy growing up far away from home and trying to make his way in a confusing world.  The book is strongest in its critique of corruption and unfettered power, and the importance of the Confucian values.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

There has been a lot of buzz about Cixin Liu’s novel The Three-Body Problem.  It’s one of the first, and most significant, works of Chinese SF to be translated into English, and Ken Liu’s translation has been done with a masterful lightness of touch..

The Three-Body Problem is mind-expanding in all the right ways. One of the things I love about reading fiction in translation is the way that it exposes you not just to more diverse fictional voices, but different ideas and cultural concepts.

The novel has a powerful opening, exploring the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution in China.  Fervent revolutionary zeal turns family members against one another.   Zealous Orwellian professions of adherence to acceptable political beliefs are essential for survival.  But the new politics remains a contested space, with bloody civil wars between rival factions remaining common.

Although Cixin Liu disavows the idea of SF being a commentary on contemporary society in his author’s afterword to the English language tradition, it’s clear how recent Chinese history has shaped the novel.  Ye Wenjie has been brutalised by her experience of the Cultural Revolution and branded as a counter-revolutionary outcast.  Her actions in inviting an alien civilisation to come and conquer Earth are wholly a response to that life.  She sees alien invasion as the only way of dealing with the problems and flaws of Chinese society.  Inevitably, there are divisions within the movement that she founds and the divisions within the Earth Trisolarist Organisation (ETO) reflect the schisms within Cultural Revolution-era China.

The Trisolarist civilisation is introduced to us in the novel through the Three Body online game.  It illustrates a civilisation living on a planet that is part of a trinary star system.  The titular three-body problem is the mathematical problem of being able to reliably predict the interactions of three solar bodies.  The society created is doomed to destruction by the erratic behaviour of its trinary star system.

In the game,. the Trisolarist civilisation is illustrated by reference to Imperial China, and the authoritarian nature of Trisolarist society is clear.  One could very easily read it – and the ETO – as an allegory of the Communist Party establishment in China.  There are also clear parallels here with the long tradition of 1960s American pulp SF about alien invasion and body snatchers, which reflects contemporary Cold War anxiety about Russia.

The Three-Body Problem is the first novel in a trilogy, which makes it difficult to review as a stand-alone piece.  But it sets up an interesting take on alien invasion literature and provides fascinating insights into Chinese culture.  I will certainly be seeking out the sequels.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

How do you value a person?  That’s the question Ninni Homqvist poses in her novel, The Unit.  The Logan’s Run type premise is simple.  At the age of 50 (women) or 60 (men), unproductive members of society known as ‘dispensibles’ are taken to a special Unit where they live in comfort in exchange for giving up all their rights and becoming the subject of medical experimentation, donating their blood and organs to others deemed more valuable to society.  Ultimately, a ‘final donation’, the timing of which is determined by the needs of the recipients, results in their death.

The Unit obviously stands to be compared with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.  But I think The Unit is the much more interesting book.  Where Ishiguro gives us tabula rasa innocents bred to act as organ donors and living in a relatively bucolic innocence, Holmqvist presents us with mature adults who have lived real and fulfilling lives.  The choice of who is ‘dispensible’ becomes much more charged by societal and political values.

In Holmqvist’s world, value is a purely commercial construct.  Career professionals, and carers (particularly those rearing the next generation of workers) are prized above the childless and the unskilled.  Without either of those, a person’s net worth is seen only through the lens of what their biological material can be used for.  And that sense of value is one that is highly value-laden, reflecting a very heteronormative view of society based around traditional gender roles.  The best protection a woman has against being categorised as ‘dispensible’ is to be a mother.  Time and again, those in the Unit are told they are making their final donations to benefit women with young children.

Yet, in an unsettling counterpoint, ‘traditional’ gender roles of strong male provider and submissive female have been rendered unlawful.  Ironically, within the Unit, Holmqvist’s protagonist Dorrit’s ‘dispensible’ status means she has greater freedom to express preferences that would be unacceptable in wider society.  To those of us in the UK, Scandinavia (Holmkvist is Swedish) is sometimes presented as a paradise of social justice, but the reality is far less clear-cut: sexism remains endemic, and is in many ways far more ingrained than in the UK.

Viewed through the lens of a typical Western society that values self-actualisation, whether it is through ‘finding oneself’ or creative self-expression, this emphasis on commercial value and reproduction is jarring.  One of the threads running through The Unit is the nature of free will.  Choice is stripped from Dorrit systematically.  Once sent to the Unit she has no freedom in the conventional sense, with limited autonomy as well as incarceration.  She is subjected to medical experimentation and forced donation without her consent, and what freedoms she has are limited to creative self-expression and relationships with others.  Every other facet of her life is controlled and surveilled by the authorities running the Unit.  But in compensation Dorrit has no concerns about food, money, power or healthcare, and has been connected with a network of potential friends.  In the language of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this is freedom from, rather than freedom to.

When Dorrit is given a free choice, she opts for the familiar comfort of the Unit.  One of the accomplished subtleties of the novel is that it is left entirely ambiguous whether Dorrit is making a free choice of a safe, walled garden over greater freedom with greater risk, or if her choice is the result of institutionalisation.  In Dorrit’s place, what would we all choose?

GoodReads rating: 4*