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September 9th, 2019

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Cat Country, by Lao She

Second paragraph of third chapter:
再一睁眼,我已靠在一个小屋的一角坐着呢;不是小屋,小洞更真实一点;没有窗户,没有门;四块似乎是墙的东西围着一块连草还没铲去的地,顶棚是一小块银灰色的天。我的手已自由了,可是腰中多了一根粗绳,这一头缠着我的腰,虽然我并不需要这么根腰带,那一头我看不见,或者是在墙外拴着;我必定是从天而降的被系下来的。怀中的手枪还在,奇怪! When I woke up again, I found myself propped into a sitting position in the corner of a small room. No, it really wasn’t a small room; it was more like a little cave. There were no windows and no doors. Four wall-like pieces of something or other surrounded a bit of ground from which the grass hadn’t even been weeded. The roof was a small bit of gunmetal sky. My hands were free, but now there was a thick rope around my waist. I couldn’t see the other end of it. Maybe it was tied to something on the other side of the wall. Perhaps since I’d descended from the sky, they thought that it would be a good idea to anchor me to the ground. How odd–the pistol was still in my shirt!
About a year ago, my old friend Rana Mitter recommended this to me as an early example of the Chinese science fiction tradition which we're now seeing in the works of Cixin Liu and Hao Jingfang (and others, but those are the recent Hugo winners). It's a short read, a very very direct satire on China of the 1930s, portrayed as a country on the planet Mars inhabited by cat people. The narrator is an earthling who arrives in a crashed spaceship just before the story begins and gets away slightly murkily as it ends. I thought it was really interesting to note that the trope of people going to Mars and encountering talking non-humans was already well enough established for a Chinese writer writing in Chinese in 1930s China to just pick it up and run with it. The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were circulating in translation, but neither of them has humans landing on Mars.

The satire is so direct that I wondered if Pierre Boulle might have been partly inspired by this for Monkey Planet/Planet of the Apes. The dates however don't seem to check out - according to ISFDB, Cat Country seems to have been translated into English only in 1970, and to French only in 1981, too late for Boulle's book which was published in 1963. Our unnamed protagonist comes to terms with a fragmented Cat Country, full of weak patriarchal local warlords who are exploited by rich and cynical foreigners, and undermined by subversive students who follow the philosophy taught by Uncle Karl which led to the overthrow of the emperor in the neighbouring country. As satire goes, it's not all that subtle. But it's effectively written, and I found William A. Lyell's translation lucid. You can get it here.

Despite his obvious satire of Communism, Lao She survived and kept writing until 1968, when he committed suicide after being purged and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

This was my top book by a non-white writer. Next up is Paper Girls vol 2 (where Cliff Chiang is the artist), though as previously noted I think I'll reread all five volumes.

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