Invasion of the red body snatchers

Jul 9, 2003 at 12:00 am
Chang Hsi-kuo is said to be a titan of Chinese science fiction; in Taiwan, his homeland, he is considered the father of the genre. The City Trilogy, reputed to be his masterwork, recently arrived in America. Despite such accolade, I can't help but feel that the novel's brilliance evaporated somehow in its translation, or in its trans-Pacific journey.

Perhaps we Americans just aren't up on our Asian politics. The novel takes place on the planet Huhui and, more specifically, in besieged Sunlon City. The various antagonistic clans there are bristling under the rule of the Shan, a powerful invading force that at times seems barely in control. Out of the brimming rebellion emerges Miss Qi, a tough and haughty Princess Leia type who ferrets out traitors in her midst and leads her people in rebellion against the Shan. Meanwhile, a mysterious cult leader seems to be setting up some diabolical plan to resurrect an ancient statue-god, which had cursed the city for millennia before being vaporized in an interstellar war.

In the book's forward, translator John Balcom says that Chang was influenced by American sci-fi luminaries of the 1950s, like Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick, who subversively commented on McCarthy's America by creating foreign otherworlds. Do the Shan stand for the imperialistic Chinese, and the various clans of Sunlon City for subdued or threatened nations like Taiwan, Vietnam, North Korea, and Tibet? Who cares? There hasn't been this much political intrigue, so blandly rendered, since The Phantom Menace.

Unfortunately, Chang seems to have picked up another unfortunate characteristic from Western science fiction: an obsession for the details of his otherworld that comes at the expense of character development. Bad science fiction has an emphasis on science rather than fiction. In The City Trilogy, the story is constantly sidetracked by footnotes and descriptions that describe Huhui environment and culture, such as the footnote that details unusual (even homosexual) Huhui mating relationships rising from the fact that men outnumber women 1.72 to 1. There is obviously some satire there, as men outnumber women in China, and homosexual relationships are frowned upon. But c'mon already — get on with the story.

And sadly, in translation the story at times reads rushed, like a B kung fu movie, with events snapping off like firecrackers and characters fighting and running every which way. This is the kind of genre novel where the bad guy, dangerously close to triumph and "laughing insanely," decides to lay out his entire plan for the heroes. It's the sort of novel where characters expend oxygen explicating some background element of the plot. In America in the 1960s and early '70s, science fiction evolved to put an emphasis on good characters and literary plots rather than technology and analogy. That evolution may yet need to happen in Asia.

Scott Carlson writes for the The Baltimore City Paper. E-mail [email protected].