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The City Trilogy
Chang Hsi-kuo (translation by John Balcom)
Columbia University Press, 408 pages

The City Trilogy
Chang Hsi-kuo
Chang Hsi-kuo is considered the "father of science fiction" in Taiwan. He is the author of twenty-eight novels, a collection of short stories, and hundreds of scientific papers. He is also a professor of computer science and Director of the Center for Parallel, Distributed, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh.

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A review by William Thompson

I suspect that for most readers China does not immediately leap to mind when thinking of science fiction. But temporally the genre has had a history in Chinese literature that has broadly paralleled our own, initially during the late Qing Dynasty, and since in latter-day post-war Taiwan. As translator John Balcom elaborates in his preface, The City Trilogy is perhaps the most prominent of the works of science fiction produced from the post-war modernist movement in Taiwan, and though the first volume of the trilogy was not published until 1984, after other works by the author as well as Zhao Zifan, Huang Hi, Ye Yandu or Huang Fan had begun to receive critical attention, Chang Hsi-kuo is credited, among his contemporaries, as being "the father of science fiction" for that émigré culture.

Consisting of three novels -- Five Jade Disks Defenders of the Dragon City, and Tale of a Feather -- written and published over a ten year period, The City Trilogy has come to be considered a "modern classic" of Taiwanese literature, presented here for the first time in translation as part of Columbia University's ongoing Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan. In part intended as an allegorical fable of Chinese history, as well as the "creation of a distinctly Chinese science fiction," the three novels concern the struggle for political power and control of Sunlon City. The symbolic and urban center for Huhui, a planet with an ancient and violent history, Sunlon has come to represent both the hopes and identity of the Huhui people, the fate of the planet and its culture inextricably bound to its continued fortune: "Though flowers and fruit must fall, scattered by the wind, Sunlon City will be reborn!" Throughout thousands of years of incessant warfare and civil unrest, the city has endured, like a phoenix (a motif echoed elsewhere) rising from the ashes, a symbol of permanence and promise for the future. And yet within its long history, reflected by the Bronze Statue that stood for centuries as a monument to the City's pride and grandeur, a "sin" has also been noted.

A Dying Earth, Huhui is dominated by a giant purple sun, whose warmth and light is concentrated within an hour at the middle of the day, forcing its residents to seek shelter from its seering heat. The green fertility of an earlier age is gone, and the city is surrounded by arid plains and desert, the streets each evening swept by a "late rain" of sand whose yellow grains contrast against "the purple clouds that [hang] like spikes" in the night sky, punctuated by "Shafts of bluish light [that stand] between the purple empyrean and the yellow earth." Stars are invisible, obscured by the planet's dense atmosphere, and though visitors "would have been left speechless by the spectacular night of the Huhui planet... Night in Sunlon City left most people so depressed that few would venture outside." But despite the recognition of planetary decay and a sense of eventual dissolution -- its approaching inevitability mirrored by the heavens -- the glories of Sunlon's past remain a constant in its present, history re-enacted in the daily lives of its populace, a living memory. Political and military factions whose origins exist thousands of years in the past continue to struggle for supremacy, between monarchy, republic and cult, their internal differences temporarily held in abeyance to confront a new enemy, the interstellar Shan dynasty.

Into a stew of espionage, war and political strife the author interjects observations and investigations into the nature and possible -- some might say probable -- end of human history, seen through the lens of several thousand years of Chinese civilization, a culture that in its relatively uninterrupted identity is one of the most ancient on Earth. Allegorical parallels are both obvious and oblique, marital arts, transmigration and Taoist philosophy recast into an alien landscape in which both the reader and the characters at times seem estranged, and where time and space can merge or become altered. Though the Huhui are not exactly human, and the refugee Gaiwanese have evolved from frogs, the native and sometimes hostile inhabitants that were displaced by the Huhui -- a bestiary of Chu, Serpent, Leopard and Feathered Peoples -- are said to be descended from humans that apparently visited the planet long before the arrival of the Huhui, and revisit it from the future to record and observe the history of the planet. Interactions between the various characters and plots, though framed within a story of political and social unrest, are largely driven by ideation, symbolism and role playing, with the external logic of the underlying narrative subservient to the author's desire to explore historical, philosophical and socio-political concepts through time travel and other conceits commonly associated with science fiction. And this, in the end, becomes the problem.

The underlying narrative to these three novels, though possessing a sweep and epic scope, as well as plenty of superficial conflict and a large cast of characters, remains too abstracted in its concerns to ever elicit much attachment on the part of the reader. In part this may be due to the translation, to a failure on the part of the academic translator to adequately convey the surface story or characters as they would have been expressed in their original language, or, as John Clute has suggested elsewhere (see his review of this trilogy in his on-line column, Excessive Candour), a fundamental lack of "understanding of how SF works." This suggestion is in part supported by Mr. Balcom's comparison of the trilogy with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, with which it bears little fundamentally in common, the landscape, characters, inherent tone and at times capricious logic of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth appearing far more appropriate. Or possibly certain cultural referents have failed to translate, a situation that may be particularly true for the average American reader, with his or her general lack of trans-cultural history.

But these problems might have been acceptable or at least somewhat supported had the underlying story been stronger, and had not so singular a focus been given conceptual conceits at the expense of narrative. Though in service to larger ideas or allegory, the plots and incidents that alternately twist or ramble through the complicated framework of this trilogy often seem contrived, having no intrinsic relationship with the surface realism of the story. This is narrative as an excuse, a textual mannequin upon which concepts can be indifferently draped. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the characters are developed no more than is required for their appointed roles, summarily appearing and disappearing as necessary. And though interjected with a great amount of humor, at times delightfully absurd in its implications, the distance that exists between the reader and the surface story diminishes even these lighter moments, placed to leaven the overall series' darker pessimism.

This publication may prove a cultural curiosity for the more serious fan of science fiction, or of academic interest for the scholar, but it is difficult to imagine its appeal to the average reader. The story and characters simply fail to assume life, and I found reading these three novels frankly tedious. Though one glimpses moments of evocative imagery or ideas that temporarily snare one's attention, their manner of presentation and artifice fails to maintain sustained interest.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a regular contributor to SF Site and Interzone magazine. His reviews have also appeared in Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. In addition to his own writing, he possesses an MLS degree in Special Collections, and serves as an advisor to the Lilly Library for their collection of fantasy and science fiction. He is currently working with scifi/fantasy bibliographer Hal Hall, at the Cushing Collection at Texas A&M on the Moorcock manuscripts, and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Gary Westfahl.

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