abstract image

Image by Celine Nguyen

Let There Be Light

Chen Qiufan

Chen Qiufan’s fiction seems to arise from a mix of anxiety, audacity, and tenderness. He is widely recognized as “the leading figure of China’s generation of science fiction writers born after 1980,” in writer and translator Ken Liu’s words. Like many figures in that remarkable generation, Chen moves restlessly across different professions, languages, and identities—working in tech firms, writing essays, stories, and screenplays, and drawing a large following on social media. Waste Tide, excerpted below, is Chen’s unforgettable first novel. Liu Cixin called it “the pinnacle of near-future science fiction.” Now English-language readers can see why.

Translated by Ken Liu.

Let there be light, Mimi 0 thought.

She saw them. Hundreds of thousands of dynamic images loomed in front of her eyes, data so complex that the human brain was incapable of processing them. She felt dizzy, nauseated, lost.

Welcome to the “Compound Eyes” system of Shantou, which connected hundreds of thousands of cameras and image recognition artificial intelligence. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the system kept under surveillance the city’s every street, every corner, every expression on every person, searching for signs of crime or acts of terrorism and protecting the lives and properties of the inhabitants. Mimi was now an invader in its heart. She was looking for something special.

Soon, she realized that her search technique was too inefficient, like looking for a needle in a haystack. Mimi 1 reorganized the logic for presenting the video feeds and re-created all of Shantou from a first-person point of view based on the geography of the streets and the locations of the cameras. Unlike regular human vision, this was a view where each perspective was all-encompassing, panoramic. It was like Corregio’s dome fresco, Assumption of the Virgin, at the Cathedral of Parma, where everything around the observer appeared in a vortex of concentric rings, with the vanishing point of the perspective the apex of the dome. As the observer moved closer, more details were revealed at the center of the vortex without end.

Imagine the world as a strange apple. The depressions at both poles are deformed and deepened until they connect, turning into a doughnut. The skin of the apple, meanwhile, remains intact and can slide up and down the “hole” of the doughnut like an endless treadmill. The observer is situated somewhere in the hole, and what he sees is the ring-shaped world endlessly unfolding.

More fantastically, as the observer moves towards any point in the wall of the doughnut, the point would automatically open up, expand and surround the observer in a new doughnut-view. A perfect, self-organizing, fractal structure.

Hundreds of passengers wriggled under Mimi’s wings, getting impatient.

She moved. Rationally, she knew that her body was still imprisoned in that tiny corrugated-iron shack quaking in the storm and that her consciousness was only about a dozen kilometers away, wandering inside the dull, metal boxes of a data center. However, the images swirling around her gave her the illusion of having transformed into a winged angel gliding over this concrete and steel jungle. Her virtual body swept over streets, passed through houses, shops, bridges, parks, elevators, trains and buses, and glanced quickly into countless lit windows, not overlooking any spot.

It was dusk, but the city was already awakening into a sparkling tapestry.

In the rain, the traffic crawled through the city’s main arteries and capillaric side streets like gleaming blood. Hundreds of thousands of equally anxious and numb faces hid behind the windshields, cleared by the unceasing sway of wipers that polished the wet glow of neon against glass. The self-driving cars were stuck between cars driven by those who refused to trust computers, and horns blared as the decibel counters on noise monitors rose and rose. Many glanced in the rearview mirror with a crooked set in the mouth that indicated ill intentions.

Three hundred thousand windows automatically lit up; the smart sensors understood the moods of the men and women coming home and automatically adjusted the temperature, the color of the lighting, the channels showing on the TVs or the music playing through the sound systems; five thousand restaurants received automatically generated take-out orders; the health monitoring systems synced up with the body films, and, based on dozens of parameters such as body temperature, heart rate, caloric intake/consumption, galvanic skin response, suggested plans for the next day’s activities. Exhausted face after exhausted face.

The offices in the skyscrapers were lit bright as day. The giant eye zoomed in and observed a hundred thousand faces staring at computer monitors through closed-circuit cameras; their tension, anxiety, anticipation, confusion, satisfaction, suspicion, jealousy, anger refreshed rapidly while their glasses reflected the data jumping across their screens. Their looks were empty but deep, without thought of the relationship between their lives and values, yearning for change but also afraid of it. They gazed at their screens the way they gazed at each other, and they hated their screens the way they hated each other. They all possessed the same bored, apathetic face.

Below an overpass, the homeless picked through trash for food; a woman who had consumed too many useless calories walked by with her dog.

An aging dancer at an adult club carefully applied her makeup in the mirror, paying no attention to the black shadow noiselessly approaching from behind.

A naked man wielded a whip to force the girls before him to caress an albino alligator whose skin was studded with tactile sensors; the electrical signals were transformed into sexual stimuli injected directly into the cortices of wealthy patrons.

In a luxurious apartment, a man sat stiffly on his bed, impassively observing the exaggerated expressions and stale routine of a comedian on TV. He stared at his own face on the giant screen, sobbed noiselessly, and lifted a gun.

A flock of birds rose into the evening air, dissipated like a column of black smoke, and then gathered back together, forming a series of irregular shapes against the indigo sky. Occasionally, the beam of a searchlight swept through, and the black smoke transformed into a flickering patch of silvery gravel. The cameras went through a series of quick cuts and the focal distance was set to maximum in an attempt to follow the flight of one particular bird. All the birds looked like the same bird, following the direction of the flock, imitating the posture of companions nearby; no one dropped out; no one set out on its own; in the jungle, this meant food and safety.

She browsed through the cameras rapidly and patched the disparate images into a smooth, dynamic vision. Like a diving bird, she swooped past a glass wall hundreds of meters tall, and in the mirror was the strange, deformed reflection of the city with its flashing neon lights that engraved the mental patterns of consumerism into the retinas of all viewers, drifting and changing with their shifting gazes.

She saw everything, except herself.

Mimi saw even more: the lonesome, the gamblers, the addicted, the innocent … hiding in brightly lit or dark corners of the city, worth millions or penniless, enjoying the convenient life brought about by technology, pursuing stimuli and information loads unprecedented in the history of the human race. They were not happy, however; whatever the reason, it seemed that the capacity for joy had degenerated, had been cut off like an appendix, and yet, the yearning for happiness persisted stubbornly like wisdom teeth.

Mimi felt a wave of pity for them, civilization’s favorite children.

An excerpt from Waste Tide, published by Tor in Spring 2019.

Chen Qiufan is a Chinese science fiction writer and entrepreneur. His debut novel Waste Tide, translated by Ken Liu, will be published by Tor Books in the United States in spring 2019.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 7, "China 中国". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.