On my trip to China, I picked up a few copies of 科幻世界, or Science Fiction World. I’ve been told it’s not a particularly well-regarded magazine–it apparently goes for a somewhat younger audience than it used to–but it’s the best place for me to find short pieces to translate, and since short is about all I can manage, that’s what I do. There’s not much Chinese SF translated into English, with the exception of Lao She’s Cat City and apparently the recently-published The Fat Years, which I haven’t read yet, so I don’t have much of a background in it. But anyways.
Here’s a piece called 考试机, or “The Test Machine”, by an author named Xuan Yuanjian. The great thing about Chinese is that it’s beautiful for neologisms like that. The character system gives you an almost infinite number of building blocks that you can put together without sounding like an idiot with your “vidcalls” and your “cyberrats” and what have you, although the equivalent of “robocop” in this story is the somewhat less-catchy “robot police.”
The Test Machine
by Xuan Yuanjian
“There’s only one difference between a toaster and a tester: The things you put in the toaster aren’t as easy to burn.” Old Hu, the test machine operator, swallowed his dry bread. “Hey…bring some water.”
“You’ve already got milk. And this bread is richer than you.” The bakery proprietress brought a bottle of house-produced “black market” water. “What, don’t you want it? Even here it’s not all the same. Old Seven over there, he got checked, and the water wasn’t recovered—they still fined him three thousand. I wouldn’t be giving it to you if you weren’t a regular.”
“Ehh, it’s not the same. There aren’t dying men at your door every day.” Old Hu took the water at a gulp. “Bring another.”
“This stuff could get me arrested. One point four.”
“What do you take me for? Am I going to tell anyone it was Fifty-Fourth Street’s prettiest shopkeeper? I’ll say it was Old Seven’s bakery.”
“Hu, you joker. Hey—be careful. I heard there were bandits in District 2 the other day.” The shopkeeper called as she swept past him.
“I fear no bandit! See you later!” Hu looked back and laughed, tripped over the rubbish under his feet, which crackled and rolled…
Test, Test, Test: The Teacher’s Silver Bullet
The year is 3010, in Y City, Z Country. Those who follow the works of writers know that among them are many Y Cities, many Z Countries, and all are set in 3010, but the settings could not be more different, and even those in which the background are the same tell very different stories.
It is said that the universe is a self-extending system, and the theory of parallel universes is a fascinating one. It is possible, for instance, that any conceivable situation could exist—or could not. In this way, the universe contains both every possibility and its negation, and countless parallel universes take shape, destined never to intersect. It follows, therefore, that in some universes this story was written, and in some not, and in some it was written one way, and in some another…and in this way the year 3010 contains a multitude of possibilities.
Old Hu, the man named Pan Hu, sadly never exceeded a hundred pounds. He is the protagonist of this particular story; however, that is not to say that the author dares readily subscribe to his views. Once, he said to his S13 Testing Facility colleague Little Zhao: Quit reading that science fiction, and study your Borough B Citizen’s Reference. If you don’t pass next time, they’ll send you down to Borough C, and then you’ll be finished.
Zhao put down his science fiction novel and gestured at the dense thicket of people outside the facility. “Look.”
The varied group lined outside bore stupefied expressions and a look of unspeakable exhaustion, like bricks cast from the same mold. Even their nervous eyes were all the same, their bowed heads, their rigid looks from right to left. Every day there were a few who, at the sounding of the horn, climbed the fence and jumped, free-falling the few dozen meters to forever conclude their annual testing.
“And why? Are there still old men who take it so seriously? Or unweaned children?” Hu was already used to the cleaning crews at the foot of the building taking the corpses out for fertilizer.
Zhao handed Hu his book. “Happy birthday.” And he left, parting the crowd, climbing the fence and jumping down…
Division, Division: The Student’s Lifeblood
What Hu tripped over as he left the bakery was not rubbish that someone had discarded, but a cadaver: Still fresh, one that had jumped when he had turned his back. It was an old woman, around whom were scattered small things, things that she had probably loved in life. Like all other suicides, she had test booklets on her when she died..
In Y City, everyone planned from birth to test, and on their eighteenth birthday began the annual exam.
The city had an upper, lower, and middle class. On the ground was Borough B, responsible for providing he city’s natural resources. Below it lay Borough C, provider of energy, and above Borough B, supported by a massive set of pillars, was the hanging garden that was Borough A, the city’s administration, whose main work consisted of laying out the test machine’s examinations.
Every day in Y City, two thousand or more people in ninety test halls took the exam, with content ranged from quantum mechanics to gene sequencing to a thousand kinds of global dialects—no topic was neglected. Examinees had only to visit the testing facility, and the machine would stretch and fix upon them, pricking them with countless needles linking the test-taker’s nervous system and the machine. In a split second, the machine had asked a full set of random questions. Within ten minutes, it could compile a synthesis of the test-taker’s knowledge, and would provide them with a score. The outstanding passed through A Gate to create more test questions in Borough A. Those who passed remained in Borough B, meeting the needs of Borough A. And those who failed descended through the C Gate, destined to become the mouse in the dragon’s belly. Wasting their bodies to provide the power for Y City.
The system was scientific and rational, so cultured that not a chink could be found in its armor.
But for one thing…
Hu eased shut the old woman’s eyes.
Unless one studied the Y City Citizen’s Encyclopedia for at least four hours a day, there was no chance of passing, and it was off to Borough C to tread the power machines. This was no ordinary test, and no ordinary transformation.