Is this the future? More than just a slogan on a T-shirt worn frequently by the protagonist of Xiaolu Guo's UFO In Her Eyes, a character who is illiterate even in her own language and as such is completely unaware of the implications of the phrase, this question is the driving force of this short, multi-perspective novel: is this near-future projection of the modernization of contemporary China really how things will end up, and if so, how should we feel about it?
About the latter point, the novel is definitively one-sided; we are to believe that urbanization is steamrolling over Chinese culture, moving too quickly for anyone fluent in the old, rural ways to even dream of keeping up. A UFO sighting by a young peasant woman named Kwok Yun, a decidedly suspect phenomenon that triggers an investigation by officials from Beijing, is the catalyst for an intimate examination of traditional Chinese village life and the "reform" taking place in the 21st century. "I don't see how we can talk about the present day without knowing the past" (p. 6), notes the village chief early in the novel, immediately setting up a discourse about the effect of the past on the present, which is explored as the novel progresses. Presented as a series of documents and transcripts of interviews conducted by the Beijing officials in the wake of the UFO sighting, UFO In Her Eyes paints a picture at once obvious and subtle, flatly on-the-nose about luminously complex ideas.
Kwok Yun apparently witnessed not only "a large silver plate" in the sky, subsequently feeling as if she was "a tiny insect, exposed on the soil, about to be eaten by a big bird" (p. 21), but she also, upon waking from a collapse induced by shock, discovered a white foreigner lying on the ground nearby. Coded early as Western, the foreigner is eventually revealed to be definitively American. However, he is suspected all the while by some to be an alien from Outer Space, a theory which is explained by the village chief in a moving scene which simultaneously reveals her ignorance, and her heartfelt desire for her village to succeed in the modern world. The subsequent onslaught of progress inflicted upon the traditional village of Silver Hill is also considered by the novel to be a result of Western influence, based primarily on China's newfound position of importance within the global community. UFO In Her Eyes is an examination of a Chinese future (the novel begins in 2011) that seems likely to occur: in the rush to Westernize, China will forego many of its connections to its own history.
The sighting of strange phenomena has often been attributed to members of the lower class—the cliché of the country bumpkin seeing Big Foot on a hunting trip, the simple fisherman spotting the Loch Ness Monster, or, as in the case of UFO In Her Eyes, the peasant girl seeing strange things in the sky and wondering what it could all mean. This class issue is present right from the start of the novel as the government agents investigating the sighting begin to interview the local peasants, uncovering anecdotes that would seem to confirm their suspicions of the backwardness of rural residents. "This place is still . . . poor, but at least we don't have to eat each other anymore," says the village chief's secretary during his interview after relating a disturbing story from one of Silver Hill's more troubling times (p. 10). This matter-of-fact innocence is what allows the UFO incident to remain so unclear, as the witnesses formulate theories based on vague information about the world outside. Kwok Yun admits to thinking, with regards to the foreigner, that if she doesn't save him she will "be accused of harming the friendship between China and some powerful foreign country" (p. 23). She has no reference point for the event that has taken place and is forced to make her own assumptions, allowing the incident to grow to exaggerated magnitude.
Ironically enough, it is the sighting of the UFO that catapults Silver Hill (formerly an important village due to its proximity to the birthplace of Chairman Mao, but now relegated to outsider status due to poor government funding and an aging, increasingly less productive population) into the limelight. Efforts are made to turn the UFO sighting into a major national event, and Silver Hill attempts to capitalize on the attention by becoming a national tourist attraction. Kwok Yun's grandfather echoes the sentiments of many in the village as he asks, "Has everybody turned mad? I understand nothing of this modern world" (p. 35). There is a palpable sense that the world beyond Silver Hill is mysterious and alluring but also somehow unwelcome, and as changes are suggested and then implemented, the villagers realize that things are changing much too fast. When being interviewed by the government officials, one notable resident of the village expresses his belief that the only reason the village would want a tennis court, for example, is so that "people can hit balls about and pretend to be Western" (p. 125). However, this particular villager's eventual suicide is met with confusion by the chief's secretary, who truly believes in the idea of progress as a process of urbanization, of joining the modern world:
"Commit suicide! What a mad idea! To us, the idea of suicide is beyond imagination. We have lived through the most difficult times, eating grass roots or even cooking our own brothers' legs to escape starvation. And before the Great Famine, back in the forties when civil war raged through the country, life was as hard as a bullet. No one tried to commit suicide then. Why would they now, when things are getting better? How was it possible for someone to take his own life when he had already endured so much hardship? Did that not make everything he had suffered pointless? Why live in the first place?" (pp. 146-147)
The secretary's confusion points out perhaps all too directly the novel's central question: what is the price of this particular brand of progress? For him, the value of modernization is incontrovertible, yet the other man has killed himself because of his inability to change drastically enough to fit into this new world, so something has indeed been lost in translation. "Once we were revolutionary and progressive, now we are slow and backward," notes the village chief early in the novel, setting us up for her subsequent efforts to rejuvenate Silver Hill by stretching the UFO sighting to maximum effect (p. 7). She later becomes "convinced that, in the very near future, Silver Hill will live up to its name and become a place where you will truly find silver on the streets. We aim to be a launch pad for the future of China. Soon, every citizen will be able to travel the world, to see the Mona Lisa and the Alhambra, and even possibly to start amazing voyages into Outer Space" (p. 189). This mixture of naiveté and ridiculousness is both charming and vaguely pathetic, as even the village chief, Silver Hill's liaison with the rest of the world, is revealed as out of touch with reality, even as she may be just inflating expectations so as to arouse a sense of hope and wonder among her otherwise jaded citizenry. The villagers in turn lament the "progress" as it infiltrates all areas of their existence, often rendering them obsolete; "I'm too old to change" is a common refrain (p. 133). Early excitement about the fact that "Silver Hill is finally going to make some noise" is thwarted by an eventual resignation, a loss of the recognizable world (p. 103).
UFO In Her Eyes touches on issues of gender politics, generational clash, a discussion of contemporary economic conditions, and China's relationship with its neighbors (a bicycle mender from the Korean border is regarded as almost alien himself, living on the fringes of even the remote village life), and thus is an exceedingly worthwhile artifact as a whole, examining the issues facing China as the nation confronts modernization and its associated integration with the Western world. The problem with the novel is its simplicity, its (sometimes overwhelming) obviousness. The book ultimately reads like a parable, a very direct series of events related by the author to impart a moral lesson, rather than a more fully fleshed out narrative that could have transcended the book's essayistic heft. Even the name of the government officials who have come to investigate the UFO sighting are direct allusions to major events in Chinese history: they are assigned numbers which mimic the dates of events like the Chinese nationalist movement and the tragedy which took place at Tiananmen Square. The novel wears its reference points on its sleeve (or on the front of its T-shirt), so that while the final product has a satisfying sense of conclusion, as though something has been fully explained, it also lacks passion. The mystery conventions, on display most prominently as the visiting officials endlessly interview the residents of Silver Hill in an attempt to discover some secret that they believe the villagers are keeping, ultimately fall flat when we realize that there isn't really a mystery here at all, only a big misunderstanding. Luckily the book itself is physically interesting, filled with revealing maps, charts, memos, and a plethora of other inserts that add life to the manuscript, a cinematic flair unsurprising when one considers Xiaolu Guo's successful career as a filmmaker.
The fact that the UFO sighting in the novel occurs on September 11th, exactly ten years after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, is also something that should not go unremarked upon. "Ever since September, the village has been unsettled by the thought that there might be aliens among us," notes Chief Chang's secretary as he recalls that time of confusion and fear, even as this statement comes in the wake of news that the visitor was, in the end, just an American tourist (p. 85). But the prospect of aliens, of unknown beings visiting from unknown places, is a common fear in this new world of rapid growth and change coupled with the constant threat of destruction. This is a novel about a forgotten place being awakened by persistent noise from the world outside, and this is, sometimes unfortunately but always undoubtedly, a relevant metaphor for describing the world in which we currently reside, Western or otherwise. Kwok Yun, in the end, likens herself and her peers to "ants: desperate and powerless" (p. 195) as she encounters a sculpture in Silver Hill which was built to commemorate her UFO sighting and finds that it looks nothing like what she remembers; she has foregone her personal sense of agency to the march of progress, now seemingly out of hand (as evidenced by the unrest described in the book's final pages), and now must attempt to find a place for herself before it's too late.
UFO in Her Eyes is not in any way about UFOs. It is about the Chinese version of modernization coming to their rural areas. The eponymous UFO simply kick starts that process, and all the rest of the book covers consequences. It's a quick read, and covers quite a bit of ground. While it offers an interesting perspective on the way things work in China, it describes a place not as alien or different as perhaps one might think. I'm not quite sure if that is a consequence of being a book written in English for an English-speaking audience, or if China really isn't as different a place as we sometimes imagine.
The story is framed as a series of reports by government investigators into an event that took place on Sept. 11, 2012 (obviously not a coincidence), and its aftermath. The trigger is Kwok Yun. She saw a UFO land in a field, and an occupant came out. He looked human, but was hurt. She took him back to her place to give him first aid. After a few hours she left to get more help, but when she came back he was gone. At this point, she went to report the events to the town chief; it is this report that prompts the first government investigation, in which two agents interview many of the townsfolk about the UFO incident. Subsequent investigations, also composed mainly of interviews, document the changes that come to town as a result of the incident.
The investigators talk to the village chief, the secretary, and various merchants and inhabitants. Each one has his/her own set of issues, pet peeves, backstory, etc. They talk about themselves and each other in a very familiar small-town gossipy sort of way. In such a short work each of the characters takes on a stereotyped aspect; only one or two could be said to approach three dimensionality. However, that is a) a necessity given the framing narrative, and b) almost beside the point. The characters are instantly recognizable no matter which country or culture you're from, and that recognition helps draw you into the story. Amusingly, the investigators have their own issues, which come out in the report. They're from different areas of China. One of them is from near the village and is sympathetic to the people there. The other is a city man who has a hard time with the local accent/dialect and feels contemptuous towards the rural folk.
It appears that all would have gone back to normal after the initial event, except for an extra nudge a few months later. Kwok Yun gets a letter from an American man, thanking her for her help and sending a check to help fund the village school. We are left to speculate about the connection between the "UFO" and the letter from America. An alien who poses as American to offer thanks? Was the UFO actually an American plane of some sort? These questions are left to the reader's imagination, because they are tangential to the trajectory of the story.
Of course this sort of activity brings more government attention. Luckily, it is mostly positive. They decide to laud Kwok Yun as the sort of peasant hero who can help modernize the rural villages. Starting out with the American money, the town chief lobbies for more development funds. She manages to get quite a bit of investment from Beijing. She makes plans for modernization: better roads, better irrigation, a more modern school, computers, a tourist destination, English language classes, etc. It all seems quite progressive, but very few of the villagers share her enthusiasm.
In fact, the book leaves the overwhelming impression that the villagers would have been better off if none of this had happened. Even those people who make noticeable, material improvements to their lives, such as the local school teacher, seem more confused than appreciative. People don't say these things directly to the government men (well, some of them do), but overall they don't seem pleased.
I found this conservatism surprising, and a little reminiscent of Tolkein's longing for a pre-Industrial England. One pictures China, with its huge industrial base and millions of workers moving from the farm to the city, as looking forward to the future. One would expect it to be even better if the future could come to them out in the villages. Of course, there's a generational issue here as well. Most of the people in the village are older: generally their children have already left for those jobs in the city. In that way it is unsurprising that those who have chosen to stay are unhappy when change comes.
Kwok Yun is a bit odd for several reasons. One point that is often commented upon is that she's unmarried; another is that she elected to stay home and care for her aging grandfather instead of moving up and out. The social pressures she faces are not subtle. While the town chief is female, and obviously there has been some gender equality allowed in that respect, there are still strictly defined roles enforced by the culture (not by the government). Most of the tradesfolk in the village are men. It's clearly expected that Kwok Yun will get married at some point. It's implied that she might be interested in a guy who runs a bicycle repair shop in town, but he's not a thinkable match for her because he's "foreign" (Chinese, but from a distant province). His interview transcripts go thus:
Beijing Agent 1919: Excuse me for disturbing your work, but do you know about the UFO that arrived here a few days ago?
BJ 1919: Do you understand what I am saying?
BJ 1919: You don't understand my Beijing language?
BJ 1919: Dog sun! What a shitty place . . . Well, anyway, good
luck with your rusty old fucking bicycles . . . (p. 57)
So instead, Kwok Yun gets paired up with the school teacher, and the wedding turns into a big celebration for the town. Neither of them have much say in the matter, but they go along because it appears to be expected.
One thing that I especially appreciate in this book are the nuances. This is not a sledgehammer critique of Chinese government, nor is it a wholehearted endorsement. For instance, the town chief is generally a faithful party-line Chinese communist. She buys into most government initiatives, and generally tries to bootstrap government assistance into a better town for her people. However, she also feels bold enough to complain to the government agents occasionally about certain government policies
Likewise the government is portrayed as being somewhat oppressive, but in a coercive sort of way. Certainly the agents have a story-line that they're trying to elicit from the townsfolk, and they're not above threatening some of the complainers. However, this isn't a "you'll be disappeared" thing. It's more like noticing that the butcher shop has quite a number of flies buzzing about their carcasses, surely that may imperil your health inspection certification, wouldn't it? It's more subtle. And when the story they're looking for (American spy planes, at the beginning) turns out not to exist, they let it go.
One of the things that is enlightening about reading books from other cultures is in discovering exactly how they match up to your expectations, or not—another recent example would be Ngugi wa'Thiong'o's fantastic, in all senses, Wizard of the Crow. Xiaolu Guo's China is not the caricature of a communist dictatorship that is sometimes expected, but neither is it anything resembling a Western democracy. UFO in Her Eyes gives us an interesting portrait, lightly sketched, of rural Chinese trying their best to manage the multiple forces bearing down on them; traditionalism and modernization play out a tug of war on this small stage. It is, as I said, a fast read, as the format guarantees, but it does give the Western reader a different perspective and many things to think about.
Richard Larson is a graduate student at New York University. His short stories have appeared (or are forthcoming) in ChiZine, Pindeldyboz, Electric Velocipede, Strange Horizons, and others. He blogs at rlarson.typepad.com.
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She lives in Long Beach, CA, and blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.