Huang Fan's 1981 novella, Zero, begins with bold rhetoric. An italicized transcript attributed to the Chairman of the Second Nanning Committee declares that humanity stands at the threshold of utopia: "Beyond this point lies what our ancestors extolled—that transcendent and sacred Golden Age, perfect in every way." This is, apparently, due to Nanning (whatever or whoever that is), and to a man named Max Kirsten; Nanning and Kirsten have between them provided "the perfect environment" in which humanity can "advance to the highest stage of evolution in the universe" (p. 54). Soaring stuff indeed! But turn the page and the come-down is harsh. We slip into the life of Xi Jin, a farmer—a member of "the irreplaceable forty-fifth level" (p. 55), mind, but still a farmer, and still longing for an escape from his daily grind. His dream is to ride in one of the silver flying saucers that cross his horizon every so often. His wife, however, thinks otherwise: one more page and we find her ecstatic that the Ministry of Domestic Affairs has granted what she believes is their joint heart's desire, permission to have a child. Huang does not record precisely how Xi Jin feels about this turn of events, but it seems safe to say that he is not experiencing a perfect Golden Age.
Having thus deftly established its distinctive tone—John Balcom's translation is brisk, satiric, ironic—Zero quickly closes in on its true target. The technocratic bureacracy hinted at by Xi Jin's precisely demarcated status is an authoritarian world state just coming into its maturity. Xi Jin is proud when, at the age of six, his son Xi De passes Ministry of Education exams and is deemed "qualified to receive a first-class education" (p. 57), destining him for an elite administrative career. A decade passes, during which the government establishes a universal database and abolishes currency in favor of biometrically tracked credit scores. Society is ordered so as to tame individuality and mute any passionate and childish emotional relationships. By the time the narrative has switched its focus fully to Xi De, now sixteen years of age, the Nanning Committee's credentials are impeccably dystopian. And yet the shifting perspective and breezy passage of time presage a rather more playful story than that label might suggest.
This will, admittedly, not be a surprise if you come to Zero as it has been published in English, as the last and longest story in a slim volume of Huang's fiction, published by Columbia University Press in 2011. None of the other three tales included is explicitly fantastic, but all demonstrate a creative approach to narrative and offer rewards. "Lai Suo" (1979) shifts constantly and abruptly between various moments in its titular protagonist's life, building a fractured and ultimately affecting portrait of political disaffection in single-party 1970s Taiwan. "The Intelligent Man" (1989) is a more conventionally structured but caustically absurdist sketch of a Taiwanese migrant to the US whose international furniture business leads him to a mistress in every port: there is little doubt that the women are allegorical renderings of the countries whose expectations and opportunities our hero is manipulating. And "How to Measure the Width of a Ditch" (1985) is a circular narrative in numbered sections, very concerned with its own fictionality and teasingly aware that its refusal to explain exactly why the question of ditch-measuring is so urgent is infuriating its readers. Zero is by far the longest piece in the book, occupying 99 of its 152 pages, but is written with the same lightness of touch, even if the games it plays are to a deadly serious purpose.
I picked the collection up on the strength of Zero winning the 2012 Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award, however, and this is an SF venue, so it's the adventures of Xi De I focus on here. In outline, after that wrongfooting opening, we find a familiar dystopian narrative. Xi De, raised fully within the system to work as a resource analyst and be a good cog in the technocratic machine, is thrown by a challenge to his perspective, namely the discovery of a book that purports to narrate the true history of how the Nanning state came to be. (Huang nods dutifuly to 1984: the book's author is "Winston.") The state attempts to correct Xi De's distraction with a holiday, to a (profoundly heteronormative) pleasure park in Brazil where he is assigned a personal companion: blue-eyed, blonde-haired, pink-legged Zhen, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, and an orphan brainwashed from childhood to please others. Hearing this life story crystallizes Xi De's sense of crisis, although with rather magnificent bleakness, it is not because he recognizes the falseness of their relationship, or because he grasps how absolutely Zhen has been shaped and used; it is simply that the system seems to offer no way to fulfill a connection as beautiful and tender as they have shared. Not surprisingly, his productivity continues to fall. He is reassigned from the administrative center to the industrial provinces; there, he joins a revolutionary group. As is only right and proper in such a story, the rebellion fails.
But what's distinctive about Zero is its depiction of a dystopia-in-progress—this, I think, is why we start with Xi Jin, rather than going to his son directly; it provides more scope for Huang to show change. The Nanning society has not yet reached its hermetic end-state, in which Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia; it is a work in progress, with social, emotional, and reproductive freedoms progressively removed over the course of the story. Zero was of course written while Taiwan was still under martial law and one-party rule, which inevitably colors one's reading of this aspect of the novel, although I'm not qualified to speak to the specifics of the situation. But it is striking how much more interested Huang's novella is in the science-fictional question of how the world ended up where it is than most other canonical dystopias. This, in turn, lends the novella a distinctive spin on the questions of history and remembrance that are so often found beneath a dystopia's surface.
The official history fits easily with the utopian rhetoric of the Second Nanning Committee. Max Kirsten was a scientist whose team was responsible for developing Nanning—a technological system that is both an energy source and capable of absorbing all other forms of energy, giving it the ability to, among other things, neutralize nuclear weapons. Such a revolutionary development led naturally to world peace and world government, demilitarization and responsible stewardship of the Earth's resources, all under the leadership of Kirsten. In this history, Nanning is a salve to the "chaos" of the twentieth century and its bewildering diversity: "there were thirty-four individual schools of philosophy . . . sixty-four large international organizations . . . also various forms of government—around fifty in all" (p. 59). This is the baseline against which Xi De's discoveries are judged, a history that includes an essentially magical technology that solved all the world's problems in one fell swoop. We don't believe it for a second.
Winston's purportedly true history is more brutal, and more connected to reality. A South African, Winston describes how, after resigning from the UN Committee on Racial Discrimination after losing faith in its operation, he is recruited by the Nanning committee. Kirsten is a eugenicist, who believed that humanity's purpose is to evolve towards its optimal form, and that to this end the "less desirable populations" of the world must be eliminated. Far from disarming nuclear weapons, Nanning triggers them, leading to the deaths of billions on all continents. The new state is formed; the new history is written; rebuilding towards perfection begins. Winston, eventually, feels qualms. We believe this history all too easily.
But when Xi De joins the rebellion, the Defend the Earth Army, he receives a third history from one of its officers, Du Qun, even more outlandish than the official Nanning version: humanity is the result of Clarkean uplift by stranded aliens, who have engineered an advanced technological society for the sole purpose of building an interstellar vessel capable of returning them to their home system. Or, more precisely, to build the machines that will in turn build the spaceship: "We believe that the aliens do not possess the ethics, character or goodwill that they gave the people of the earth. As far as they are concerned, humanity is just an incubator to produce machines" (p. 130).
We don't know what to make of this audacious tale. It seems like propaganda, but Huang has been careful to seed Zero with signifiers that, from outside the text, make the introduction of aliens just barely believable: the invocation of "flying saucers" right at the start; a casual mention in Winston's history that spaceflight is a technological pinnacle that must be preserved; the impossibility of the Nanning technology itself. And we do, of course, want to believe in the revolution. Meanwhile Xi De swallows the story whole, perhaps because in a society without a history, any history can seem plausible. And this one lends not just moral clarity but urgency to his life.
I won't, of course, reveal which way the cards fall in the end. I will say that Zero reminds us several times that no version of history is neutral, that rhetoric shapes reality. At one point Du Qun runs down the list of possible agendas as he sees them, religion, politics, heroism, ideology, and economics; elsewhere, Xi De has several conversations with an elderly history professor, Kang Zaoishi, who serves as a mentor and, crucially, a link to lived history. I will also say that the final revelations do nothing to detract from the bleak force of Xi De's journey. Zero is a fine and distinctive piece of writing; it is unsurprising to learn from the translator's introduction that Huang is a widely celebrated and garlanded writer in his native Taiwan. It would certainly be good to have more of his writing available in English.