Sunday, April 3, 2016

Balin, by Chen Qiufan

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(Slipstream) As a boy, Peng receives a paoxiao, a mythical humanoid creature with a great ability for mimicry. As a man, Peng tries to do research on the creature. (10,955 words; Time: 36m)

Rating: ★★★★☆ Recommended

"," by (translated by Ken Liu, edited by Neil Clarke), appeared in issue 115, published on .

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

Pro: I called this "slipstream" because no one seems to bat an eye that Peng is doing his doctoral research on a mythological creature. Or when he and Mr. Lu rush Balin to the hospital.

The story arc is rather subtle; it tells how Peng became a human being--or at least learned to have the sort of empathy and feelings that he should have.

The early part of the story tells us all about how cruel Peng was to Balin, but we can excuse some of that to the heartlessness and selfishness of childhood. He's cruel when he leaves home for school, but we can excuse that to a degree owing to how his father had treated him.

But it's harder to forgive him for dropping all contact with his dad--especially after the man had confessed that he didn't want to be left all alone. And it's painful when he walks out on him in the hospital. It's not just that we know his father really loved him; we know that Peng knows his father loved him, but he turns his back on him anyway.

We have lots of clues that Balin will be his bridge to humanity. His father hugs Balin, not Peng, but it's clear the man feeling nothing for Balin. And when Peng finds Balin chained and mistreated, he goes mad with rage--even though he's never show much feeling for Balin either.

In the final VR scene, Balin essentially imitates the whole universe, and somehow in the process, Peng makes his own breakthrough. We can see that when he asks "will this joke of an experiment turn into a tragedy?" He could only conceive of it as a tragedy if he had begun to think of Balin as a person, not a thing.

When Balin imitates the 13-year-old Peng, Peng laughs--something his father didn't do. With this show of love/affection, Peng's transformation is complete.

Con: Peng may have learned love, but we haven't really learned to love him. He remains rather unlikable right to the end. He hasn't reconciled with his father, for example. And his transformation feels just a little bit too good to be true.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 115)
Chen Qiufan Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB

12 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Glad to find a Chinese translation I enjoyed.

  2. There is a HUGE thing you're missing here. We're not talking about a mythological creature here.

    "The shadow took two steps forward, and I realized that the backlighting wasn’t the only reason the figure was so dark. The person—if one could call the creature a person—seemed to be covered from head to toe in a layer of black paint that absorbed all light. It was as though a seam had been torn in the world, and the person-shaped crack devoured all light—except for two tiny glows: his slightly protruding eyes.

    It was indeed a boy, a naked boy who wore a loincloth woven from bark and palm fronds. His head wasn’t quite as large as it had seemed in shadow; rather, the illusion had been caused by his hair, worn in two strange buns that resembled the horns of a ram. Agitated, he concentrated on the gaps between the tiles at his feet, his toes wiggling and squirming, sounding like insect feet scrabbling along the floor."

    Basically, the story is about Peng's family enslaving a boy from the South China Sea who happens to be some kind of autistic savant with exceptionally developed mirror neurons.

    That's why we feel so differently about Peng and his relationship with his father. At the very beginning of the story, the father buys a mentally-handicapped slave for his son as a 13-year birthday present!

    1. How do you account for passages that describe him as non-human?

      "I could see his teeth clearly: densely packed, sharp triangles like the teeth of a shark; they easily ripped apart whatever he stuffed into his mouth."


    3. I think part of the text is that you're being forced to switch between people's points of view in a very subtle manner. When Peng first meets Balin, he describes him as a boy. But then his father describes him as a Paoxiao, analogizing him to the traditional mythical creature. But then Peng sees that Balin doesn't actually have horns, it's hair arranged so that it looks like horns.

      Another piece of evidence that sticks out is the end text, wherein Peng's adviser describes Balin not as a monster, but as a "primitive", i.e, within the context of the world Balin is some kind of tribal indigene, not a mythological creature. In the story collection "The Reincarnated Giant", the writer of the introduction mentions the racial aspect.

      That is one of the "artistic" parts of the story; the father in a way represents this kind of unthinking callousness, seeing it as okay to enslave a foreign boy, deceive and trap his son, etc. Part of what he's doing is telling his son, at the outset, "Balin is not human, he's a mythological monster". You can choose to believe that as much as Peng did at the beginning, but gradually what's happening is that it becomes obvious that Balin is human too.


      The two biggest hints for me is that the Chinese have had a traditional of "magical negro" stories in antiquity, where black-skinned slaves were ascribed supernatural powers, who aided their masters, then escaped. When the narrator speaks of the pitch-blackness of Balin's skin, I think that might be what Chen Qiufan is aiming at here.

      The other hint is a similar racially-charged story, a novella in this case, from Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel Laureate. _Prize Stock_ is about a Japanese village capturing an African-American airman during WW2, and a boy's encounters with his new "animal". Unlike what you might expect, this doesn't turn to overt sympathy or rebellion, and in fact, the airman is treated like an animal and eventually takes the boy hostage. When the adults liberate the boy, they chop through his hand to kill the airman.


      Search for the section about the "The Kunlun Slave" story.

    5. I'm not entirely convinced, but it's an interesting argument. If Balin is just a regular human being, though, what does the school think the narrator is studying? It's also a bit odd that Balin never speaks and no one thinks that's unusual.

    6. According to the text, what Peng is studying is the difference between volitional and mimicked movement in an attempt to disprove Todorov's theory of motor control.

      I also wouldn't say that Balin is a regular human being. I notice the part where the schoolteacher is described as knowing all about Paoxiao, indicating that they're a recognized type in the story, so I'm wrong if I say that Balin is individually special.

      However, when I look at the original Chinese text:


      Paoxiao Zu, snatched from some islands on the edge of the South China Sea. I'd reckon he's never stepped on a floorboard before.

      The Paoxiao Zu statement is interesting. On one hand, Paoxiao refers to a mythological animal. On the other hand, 族 in Chinese means ethnicity, race, kind. You can see Zerg in Starcraft refered to as 虫族, or Bug Race, but you also see Chinese described as 汉族, or Ethnic Han, and Tibetans refered to as 藏族, or Ethnic Tibetan. Moreover, if we're talking about Tibetans, as opposed to Ethnic Han who live in Lhasa, and so on, the term is 藏族, not 藏人, a term that's actually used by the Tibetan government in exile.


      When you look at the science fiction elements of the story, I see two. First, real-life VR isn't as developed as in the story--Oculus Rift would kill to have the level of sensory technology that exists, and with a sufficient ecosystem that you'd have open-sourced therapy programs.

      Second, Paoxiao Zu don't actually exist in real life, obviously. There are actual biological disorders related to excessive mirror neuron development, namely "Mirror Touch Synaesthesia". But the notion of Paoxiao Zu goes beyond this concept to what essentially maps to a Taoist sage (another culture-based reading).

      Given that that the entirety of the Paoxian Zu seems to suffer from Balin's over-developed mirror-neuron system, the Paoxiao Zu are then, at most, human in the same way Pygmies are human, an extreme variation of our phenotype, and at least, a member of the Homo genus, perhaps an offshoot of the extinct Homo Floresiensis.


      For me, it's the racial element that makes the entire story so great, although it's problematic from a PC / SJW standpoint. The Kunlun Slave in this story has minimal agency, as in the classical Kunlun Slave story.

      But at the same time, we see other cultures' depiction of a "noble savage", one that is arguably superior to the standard Western depiction. In the West, the noble savage is great, but is ultimately heathen. The interchange between "civilization" and the "noble savage" is that the latter should pick up Christianity, while the former should attain the nobility of the "savage". In the Chinese depiction, though, this seems to draw on the Dao De Jing and Zhuang Zi, namely that we should abandon civilization and that "the noble savage" is closer to a Taoist primitivist ideal. When we look at Balin, in fact, his overdeveloped mirror neurons achieve a Zhuangzian exhortation to reject arbitrary social distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vile and base, and most importantly, the Self and the Other.

      Moreover, if you compare it to Prize Stock, the difference in those two stories is that in the latter the African is always an object, always a thing. Nowhere, at least in the translation I've read, does Oe's child narrator become fully aware of the downed airman's humanity and the essential inhumanity of the scenario (this is left to the reader). While I still consider Prize Stock superior, Chen Qiufan makes the tale one of gradually realizing the cruelty for what it is (even as it's perpetuated, recall Peng's threat to bite a dog's neck off), and acting to fight it.

    7. Wow, you really got into it! I still think the teeth (I don't buy the tooth-sharpening explanation because they wouldn't be densely packed like a shark's) and the mythological name establish that Balin isn't homo sapiens.

      Of course I could 100% buy the idea that it's symbolic of human slavery.

    8. The mythical name actually reminds me of the Chinese habit of appending "dog" to various "barbarian" tribe characters; i.e, it denotes them as subhuman outsiders.

      But I accept your reading as valid, at the same time I accept mine is as well. The nice thing about Chinese "lit" sci fi, or at least how it's treated in translation, is how that it can sustain multiple readings, which is why it's "literary".

    9. Agreed. Thanks for a great discussion. Hope to see you here in the future!

    10. I'm also going through the Chinese original at:

      I'm trying to figure out what was gained and lost in the Ken Liu translation, and it's actually quite fascinating. One aspect, which I should have noticed, is that the narrator's name is not completely translated. Ah Peng is a term of endearment, added to a given name or part of it. Peng, incidentally, refers to a Chinese Roc.

      This is actually a reference to a passage in the Zhuangzi where the writer is discussing the "transformation of things" as well as the liberation of perspectives.

      The point is that the Kun (Leviathan) transforms into the Peng, which soars 90,000 li into the sky. Using the modern conversion factor (2 li = 1 km), this is also High Earth Orbit, which appears retrograde to observers.

      The Peng here, obviously, is the narrator, who has the ability to deduce and analyze reality. Balin, after all, is silent and purely subject. But Balin, by virtue of being a fish (Kun), is also Peng. And perhaps that's sort of the point, Balin is a "primitive" or someone at a starting stage, while Peng, by soaring, may have lost part of its humanity through its status of soaring.

      After all, that's what Peng does, isn't it? He's smart enough to get into a Beida neuroscience program (that's the implication), to fly away and leave his city, and moreover, his father, the slaver. But what is lost in flight? A bird, after all, is above the world. A fish, on the other hand, is interminably within the world.