Explaining the difference between speculative fiction and science fiction can feel like sorting out overlapping nebulae. The main distinction of speculative fiction may be that a story is just barely possible, at a slight remove from reality that veers into the playfully weird. A Japanese author exemplifying this style is Yukiko Motoya, who writes of flying umbrellas and dressing rooms that swallow up shoppers.
TWO LINES PRESS
To introduce more translated fiction in this genre, the San Francisco-based publisher Two Lines Press has released “That We May Live,” a collection of seven contemporary tales from writers based in Hong Kong and China, themed loosely around urban alienation.
Anyone looking for political allegory may search the collection in vain. Just one of the stories, the suggestively titled “Lip Service” by Zhu Hui, has overtly political elements, if not a message. We meet a female newscaster at a television station — “a mouthpiece, a cog in the machine” — who has an illicit affair with the director. Against a backdrop of political corruption, the woman is asked to keep reading the news while she indulges her boss’ kink in order to keep her job.
A pitfall of speculative fiction is that it can feel insubstantial, the plotlines so playful as to be random. Some stories here, too, have engaging well-written scenes, but may leave you wondering if they add up to anything. “The Elephant” by Chan Chi Wa, for example, which pays homage to Haruki Murakami, begins with intriguing mystery — “After the elephant vanished, my life fell into chaos” — but then moves on to a missing student and a strangely behaving husband until none of it all seems to matter.
Once disbelief is suspended, however, there is quite a bit to enjoy here. “Sour Meat” by Dorothy Tse, a Kafkaesque tale of a young woman who is derailed as she visits her grandmother, segues in a dreamlike manner from social observation to an allegory about womanhood and fertility. And “A Counterfeit Life” by Chen Si’An, perhaps the most trenchant in the collection, follows a glum young man impersonating no-show professionals, “roaming every corner of the city, searching for those spots in which people being waited for might fail to show up.” It is a brilliant portrait of a society where competence doesn’t matter, where anyone can be a stand-in for supposed professionals. “The jobs required no technical skill,” Si’An writes. “You simply had to be reasonably well-dressed and uncommunicative.”
More than anything, it is the assuredness of voice and style, often using first-person narratives and rendered skillfully into natural English, that lingers after the last page. As tempting as it may be, it would be tricky to glean deeper commentary from the blurred realities of the stories. What pervades the collection is the talent of these writers from China and Hong Kong, who follow literary traditions both local and international and speak knowingly of disorientation.
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