English Translation by John Chu (2020)
(Read in Clarkesworld Magazine #171, December 2020. Link to the story.)
“When I’m online, Aksha keeps me company. Anyone who says cats can’t go online is an idiot. Twenty years ago, people said humanity couldn’t go to Mars. Ten years ago, people solemnly swore that there was no way to connect a human mind to the network. Five years ago, people said that cats and dogs couldn’t speak.”
Xuejiao is a “Master Hacker”. She lives in a small apartment with a cat called Aksha. The cat joins Xuejiao online as backup guarding her against “government surveillance programs.” Master Hackers dive into the Net, searching for “ancient abysses” to “excavate data from and turn them into cash.” The author likens it to “spelunking” and makes it clear there are dangers involved in the process:
“Some abysses absolutely must not be tested. Hiding there are vast existences beyond our comprehension. All the jackholes who go there are drawn into a vortex of data, forever gone. They leave behind stiff bodies, lying comatose in hospital ICUs.”
At the beginning of the story, Xuejiao is tracked down by a man searching for his daughter. He believes she is lost in the Net and the “person” occupying his daughter’s body is not his daughter. She has been replaced by a stranger. Still with me? Parts of this story reminded me of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Specifically the act of jacking into the matrix or cyberspace, and the dangers this could pose for the unskilled user.
The main character Xuejiao felt real. I loved her frankness, her humour, her wisdom and her flaws. She has a great relationship with her cat, and the banter between them is fun to read. As the story moves forward, she reveals more about her own family and the distance that has grown between them. I really appreciated how the author Chi Hui explored the different relationships in the story, however briefly, using family to help ground the more fantastic elements of the tale.
You can probably tell by now that I really fell for this story. Yes, it’s a little rough around the edges–possibly because it’s a translation–but it spoke to me and it moved me. I got pulled into the world of the story, enjoying its humour, invention, imagination and emotion. A strong connection was made, and that is what we all seek in these stories, right?
Part cyberpunk, part mystery, part family drama, “No Way Back” is a fascinating and touching story about downloading our “selves” onto the Net and the dangers this may leave us open to. I read it twice, and immediately started looking for more fiction by Chi Hui. Unfortunately, there isn’t much available in English translation at the moment.
How about you? Have you read any Chinese science fiction or fantasy? Do you have any recommendations apart from Ken Liu who I’ve read before?
Thanks for reading!