Book Talk: 'Cat Country' by Lao She - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Cat Country' by Lao She

Alexander Wallace finds himself on a dystopian Mars. Of course, there are cats.
Cats: they are the creature that the internet loves the most, even more so than human beings. They have appeared in human mythology and literature for millennia; they were revered as defense against snakes in ancient Egypt. We have immortalized the likes of Sylvester of Looney Tunes fame.

In recent years, the world of science fiction in the Anglosphere has been rocked by the debut of a plethora of translated science fiction works from China. Most obvious of these is The Three-Body Problem and its sequels by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen. It has been those two translators bringing the likes of Hao Jingfang and Cheng Qiufan and Xia Jia to Western readers, and we have been all the better for it.

But Cixin Liu et al were not the first, by decades, to write science fiction originating from China. Serialized between 1932 and 1933 and published as a single book in the latter year, Lao She’s Cat Country is earlier than any of the authors that have made it big in the Anglosphere. It is a work that feels like something from 1933; it revolves around a Chinese astronaut stranded on a Mars that is filled with life. He is confronted with birds who try to eat the corpse of his deceased copilot, and then by the titular creatures: cats.
The narrator, who is unnamed, finds himself captured by Scorpion, one of the catlike creatures that live in Cat Country. Cat Country is a sprawling country ruled by an elite that seems to care very little for its people. It is a country addicted to ‘reverie leaves,’ the leaf of a tree that produces a profound intoxicating effect. Cat Country is subject to foreign incursions and occasionally tries to mount a foreign incursion itself, which invariably end in failure. It is a country that is insular and skeptical of anything foreign, and one with a stark generational divide with a civil war on the horizon.

Those who are familiar with Chinese history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries will see the rather clear parallel that Lao She makes. This book is a polemic against what he saw as the corruption and rot within China in the period, going into meticulously metaphorized detail about such failures. Most obviously, the reverie leaves are opium, a drug to which so much of the country was addicted after the British forced it into China at bayonet point.

Your narrator is precocious and inquisitive, like many protagonists of science fiction written in the period in the West. He reminded me as a cross between the frequent and knowledgeable comparisons of Ignatius Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and the intense inquisitiveness and introspection of Stevens from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. He is the ideal protagonist for this sort of book, for he asks the questions that the reader will want answered (this is common in much science fiction - once you notice it, you can’t not see it).

The well-read Western reader will note many similarities in this book to utopian fiction from Western countries during a similar period. I, for one, could see H. G. Wells everywhere in it, most obviously The First Men in the Moon, but also the more contemplative, critical works like All Aboard for Ararat, When the Sleeper Wakes, or The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Like Wells, Lao She was an astute observer of the society around him.

Cat Country is an angry book, one that fumes with a sense of righteous fury at the injustice around the author. In that regard, it feels very similar to many people nowadays, in many countries. Anger, as much as we wish it weren’t, is universal, as is injustice. It is from thousands of miles away from the Western reader, but Cat Country will be incisive all the same.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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