Sunday, August 30, 2015

Security Check, by Han Song, translated by Ken Liu

Clarkesworld Magazine, August 2015; 4,010 words
Rating: 2, not recommended  Recommended By: io9

A man in a future, security obsessed America longs for freedom, but lacks the courage to defy the security guards at the subway entrance.

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

The premise is painfully silly, and it's impossible to suspend disbelief. All travel in America is by subway--nationwide--all else is outlawed. Not only does the government scan everything going into the subways, it magically transforms objects from dangerous into safe. The protagonist's wife leaves him because he's not man enough to give her "real" things. He flees to China. Learns that China itself set up this system in America. That all the terrorist attacks were a government hoax.

Arguably this is fine surrealist fiction, such as we see from South American writers. However, as Lois Tilton points out, this is a "tell" story, where the narrator talks, but we never feel anything. Also, in good surreal fiction, such as Como agua para chocolate, the surreal elements all symbolize something. Here it all just feel gratuitous.

6 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I loved this one. It was a wonderful piece of satire about the American obsession with safety, security and the remaking of the world to ensure no one can ever feel unsafe. I didn't need to 'feel' anything for the narrator - the story left me with a wry smile. I particularly liked the 'the best way to make sure something was safe was to make it not exist'.

    The deployment of over-the-top nanotech (a trope of books like The Quantum Thief) in the interests of 'security' was particularly fun here.

    The surreal elements do represent something. They represent a collapse into solipsism and fear and the erosion of private life - as symbolised by the security checkpoints and the way they change both people, the objects (such as the necklace), and the main character's marriage.

    1. Since the author is Chinese, it's a safe bet that the story hasn't got anything to do with America; the "America" in this story almost certainly represents China. We could ask Ken Liu if he agrees with that, but I've seen the same thing in other stories this year. It wouldn't be safe for them to write stories about an oppressive future China, but it's perfectly fine to write about such an America.

      I'm fine with all that. It's the "no show all tell" that makes me dislike the story. Surrealist fiction can be fun, but this particular work was painful to read.

    2. I'm not sure. I'm certain this is the author who wrote 2066: Red Star over America (

      I'd love to read that book and I actually contacted a Chinese acquaintance to see if he knew a translator, after reading the io9 article. Unfortunately haven't heard anything - I think the friend has fallen out of touch.

    3. Professional translations cost about 25-cents/word so translating a 100,000-word novel will run you about $25,000. Maybe less if you're okay with "this time calamity." :-)

    4. That 25-cents/word figure comes from your foreign language studies? I've got someone who's vaguely interested in lobbying a publisher if I can find a translator... so I'm making this up as I go along ;)

    5. I think I've overstated it. (Memory must be going . . .) ;-)

      Here's a link to a site that advises new translators on what to charge to to literary translations.

      If you want the best, expect to pay as much as 25-cents per word. But 10-cents is certainly possible.