Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ether, by Zhang Ran (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan and Ken Liu)

Clarkesworld, January 2015; 14,684 words
Rating: 4, Recommended  Recommended By:  Locus

One dreary day follows another for the underemployed, middle-aged narrator until a mysterious figure in black fleeing the police stops to trace a figure in the palm of his hand.

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

Pro: Although the story appears to be set in near-future America, the location is really meant to be China. Understand that, and a lot of the rest of the story makes sense. (E.g. the police brutally arresting the "protesters" who aren't even holding signs or saying anything.) This is about what might happen if China's Internet censors were able to get everything they they wanted. The result is a world where nothing much matters to anyone. Where everyone (even the police) is just going through the motions. And where revolution simmers, nevertheless.

It is quite a surprise that China allowed anything like this to be published, even with the subterfuge.

Con: The background information about the protagonist doesn't really matter much--the protagonist remains a cipher even at the end. We are never emotionally engaged.

The story moves very slowly, and there isn't much foreshadowing. Although we do get all the answers (in an infodump), we spend most of the story thinking that puzzles like "why don't they speak aloud" are just errors on the author's part. Some of this is unavoidable, given the need for the author to pretend he's writing about America.

It's a puzzle that the police bother to arrest anyone. Aren't they affected by all of this too?

Small things are annoying, but not fatal. For example, why does he commute to work? He could work from home. A motorcycle unused for 20 years would not start. He picks up finger talk too fast. Etc.

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