Saturday, 3 January 2015

Cat Country

(January 2015)

One of the main strengths of science-fiction as a genre, one of its main attractions for writers and reader alike, is how use of the speculative allows for a more honest examination of the real. The observer paradox is an ever-present concern in the social sciences, exacerbated by the fact that it is an essentially reciprocal process: the act of observing changes that which is observed, but as a component member of the observed the observer is themselves also changed. The trappings of SF allow for a certain distance, a cleaving of subject and object.

Which is all a slightly overblown way of saying that SF lends itself particularly well to satire, a fact that becomes blindingly obvious the more of the very early stuff you (or at least I) read. While this is apparently the ‘first Chinese science-fiction’ it still reads similarly to much other early SF, and to a surprising degree. Our unnamed narrator finds himself marooned on Mars for no significant reason beyond narrative convenience and then, to quote myself, MONSTERS! Or Cats, at the very least, with which our hero has a series of disillusioning encounters and is variously appalled at and pitying of the state of these uncivilized savages in the manner of the most upright of Edwardian gentlemen. What’s surprising is how this satire on early twentieth-century Chinese society reads so very much like similar efforts in various Western nations, in fact it reminds me of nothing so much as Gulliver’s sojourn amongst the Yahoos.

Lao She apparently spent five years teaching in London (at the forerunner of SOAS), which might go some way to explaining how this Chinese work seems so very British. I suppose in a pinch we could invoke the universality of the human condition or suchlike, but where’s the fun in that? For the most part it’s a rather labored and thinly disguised rant about the current evils of Chinese Cat society, though there are occasional moments of particularly vivid expression:

And while Cat City was full of life, behind this lively façade one was conscious of a skeletal hand, a hand that seemed ever ready to tear the skin and flesh away from the Cat People to leave nothing but a wasteland of bleached bones.

Additionally, speaking as an educator in Japan, some of the sections on the underpinning political views on education are still worryingly recognizable, though I suspect that most educators around the world would be able to nod their heads to certain points.

When the new educational system first arrived, why was it that people wanted it in the first place? It wasn’t that they hoped that students would broaden their understanding, but rather that they thought they could use it to get rich… In other words, they wanted all that education could provide, except the most important part – that concerned with inculcating integrity and stimulating a love of learning.

Plus ca change, etc etc. Cat Country is interesting as a curio, if you’ve got any sort of engagement with the history of SF or of China. I’m sure there are also legitimate claims to be made for wider relevance today, but  the weather’s too cold and I am too bloated from Christmas and New Year to try to make them. It’s not exactly a page-turner but it did, at least, distract from the ghastly mess that is osechi. Happy New Year.


  1. Older works of satire are the best. I wonder if this is available on my side of the Pacific?

    1. Casting about for stuff online about this, I found a write-up in the Washington Post, so I'd imagine so. Probably best to get it from a library though, if I'm being honest.

  2. My Asian SF consumption is slipping, so this might be something to look up as a remedy. Glad you found it.

    1. It's a nice little find, right enough. But also one of those books it's better to have read than it is to read. Interesting if not captivating.