Our story club continues with Han Song’s modern fable – translated by Nick Stember
Translator’s note: An enigmatic figure, Han Song is often included alongside Liu Cixin and Wang Jinkang as one of the ‘three generals’ of Chinese science fiction. Unlike Liu and Wang, however, whose stories typically take place in a (more or less) recognizable China of the recent past or near future, the setting of Han Song’s stories is often ambiguous. His work has earned him comparisons with Franz Kafka, who was similarly obsessed with the fate of the individual trapped in the nightmare that is the modern bureaucratic state.
In Finished, Han Song takes one of the major causes of civil unrest in China today, the refusal of employers to pay migrant workers, and creates a dark allegory for the human condition. Like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, Wang Gu awakes en media res, a man out of time. Surrounded by the fruits of his labor, Wang Gu finds himself unable to enjoy them, unable even to secure the payment owed to him. – Nick Stember
As with our last story, we invite readers to write to [email protected] before November 21 with questions and comments about this story for us, the editors, to reply and respond to. Feel free to also ask more general questions about Chinese science fiction, a booming and multi-faceted genre in China that this story is just one surreal example of.
by Han Song 韩松
It was a dark and gloomy but bright and shining place, like a construction site – the kind of construction site that was just about hell and might just as well be heaven. A bell rang out, sharp and piercing over the clamor of the place, and all was suddenly quiet. Wang Gu nearly jumped in fright. He’d been busy for some time, but now they’d called a halt to work. Which was to say – he had nothing to do. Finally finished! But, suddenly idle, Wang Gu found himself at a loss. Thunderstruck, he felt a cold shiver of fear cut through him, like a knife to the vitals. It was as if he’d awoken unexpectedly from a dream he wasn’t meant to ever recover from. What happened? It took him a long time to adjust to it all. And then something welled up from deep within in his chest: Now that I’m finished it’s time to collect my pay. It was a vulgar thing to think, and it left Wang Gu uneasy and even a little ashamed, but he couldn’t help feeling a twinge of excitement, too. Fishing a small mirror from his pocket, he thought, Better tidy up a little, first – and was surprised to discover an old man with grey hair staring back at him. When he started on his task he remembered that he’d still been a young man, with dark, glossy black hair. Now he was done, and just look at him… Well, at any rate, it didn’t really matter. Wasn’t it all for the sake of getting his pay? There would probably even be a bonus of some sort. Now that he was done, Wang Gu could let the world know that he was a loyal employee, who’d never slacked off even once. Now, finally, he was going to get his due.
And yet, Wang Gu somehow had the feeling he wouldn’t be long for this world. It seemed to have happened all of a sudden. Wang Gu began to totter off in the direction of the place to collect his pay. He had to make the most of the time he had left, after all. He walked out into what seemed to be a broad avenue, as wide as a river delta, lined with countless gloomy-looking buildings lit with blue fluorescent light bulbs. Nearby, a monochrome grid of side streets seemed to have been placed at random. Apparently this was what Wang Gu and his fellows had spent all these years putting together. The streets were marked with yellow signs indicating their destinations in red characters – this one just happened to lead to the place where he could collect his pay. Wang Gu tensed with the recognition of his destination, which, thank the heavens, he could still dimly recall: Mr. G’s office. After all, Mr. G had been the one who’d sent Wang Gu off on his task all those years ago – the location of his office was written clear as day on one of the street signs. All of a sudden, Wang Gu saw that the streets were filled with old men just like him, hurrying to collect their pay. It seemed that they too, had finished their tasks, and didn’t have much time left, either. Only the street had been made much too broad, so much so that each seemed light years apart from the others and they all looked like so many ants.
He walked for a long time, placing one foot after another, until his veins seemed ready to burst and his body was ready to fall to apart. But he still hadn’t arrived at Mr. G’s office. Wang Gu didn’t remember it being so far. Soon thereafter, bones began to appear along the roadside–all that was left of those who had died on the way to collect their pay. Such a pity! And they’d worked so hard to finish their task! Step by step, the survivors made their way over the picked clean remains. Many looked to be even older than Wang Gu, their muscles sagging with age, hanging off of their wasted frames like old-twisted vines. Afraid he might be left behind, Wang Gu picked up the pace… until finally, he arrived at a tall building, so tired he could barely stand, his muscles loose and flabby. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he examined the house number. Ah, at long last, he thought to himself, Mr. G’s office. The door was ajar, without even a doorman. Wang Gu took a deep breath and, his arm racked with spasms, knocked softly. After a long pause, he finally heard a muffled “Come in!” Wang Gu hobbled inside. The office was lined with iron-sided safes, one stacked upon another, like some sort of underground bunker from World War II. What remained of the space was filled with yellowing documents and folders, and in a narrow valley in the middle of the mountains of documents, a man was hunched, reading something. This, of course, was none other than Mr. G himself. When Wang Gu called out his name in greeting, Mr. G looked up, his neck extending snake-like from his body. Wang Gu was startled to discover that Mr. G looked as young ever; the intervening years seemed not to have left even the slightest mark on his face. Back when Wang Gu had first started out, Mr. G had been his boss, so obviously he’d been older than Wang Gu at the time. That Mr. G had stayed the same while Wang Gu had become grey and haggard – it really beggared belief. Most unsettling of all though, was the fact that Mr. G hadn’t been promoted in all these years. Here he sat, in the same place as ever. Except for Mr. G, they’d all finished their tasks. It really is true what they say, Wang Gu mused. Nobody’s got it easy, and everyone’s got their own cross to bear! But Mr. G had always been good at hiding the way he really felt about things, and even if he was dissatisfied, he’d never complain in front of others. That must be it. Mr. G was on the fat side, of medium height, with small, cat-like eyes that always seemed silently taunting. They were like two tiny abacuses, rolling back and forth of their own accord. Just then, Mr. G looked like nothing more than a profile of a figure on a poker card, ready to fall at any moment, but in fact he was quite in control, alert and powerful. Probably, Wang Gu thought, it wasn’t a lack of ability, but a lack of luck that had held Mr. G back all these years. Seeing Wang Gu, Mr. G laughed and asked in a soft, almost feminine voice, “Finished?” “That’s right!” Wang Gu said, summoning what remained of his strength to laugh back, bringing his feet together and standing up straight. But instead of replying, Mr. G turned his boxy head back towards the document he’d been studying when Wang Gu walked in. After a long wait, Wang Gu cleared his throat, and coughed, trying to draw attention to himself. But Mr. G remained as silent as the grave.
Many hours passed like this, as Mr. G continued to pay Wang Gu no mind – nor the long line of old men who had begun to gather behind him. Finally Wang Gu, who was starting to feel on the spot, and to feel the approach of Death, softly called out, “Mr. G?” When Mr. G lifted his head, his smiling face showed no annoyance at the interruption: “What can I do for you?” “I’m here for the pay.” “Oh, for the pay.” “Yessir!” “And on whose behalf are you collecting pay?” “Uh, I… for myself.” “No, that’s not what I meant,” Mr. G said. Continuing to smile good-naturedly, he gave Wang Gu a quick once-over. That’s right, Wang Gu thought to himself, who am I collecting pay for? Dejected, he screwed up his courage, saying, “I came to collect pay for myself, because I’m finished.” “Finished? Tell me then, who are you?” Wang Gu stared at him in disbelief. “I’m the guy you sent to do the job. You just asked me – ‘finished?’ – remember?” Mr. G’s smile seemed to freeze on his face and he gave Wang Gu a long stare. Suddenly, he slapped the table and said, “My gosh, I think you’re right! If only I could remember – to think of all the time that has passed. I really must apologize. It’s true, you know, we’ve all been so busy… well, tell me, who have you been working for then?” “For you, of course. Weren’t you the one who sent me off on the job?” “No, no, that can’t be right,” Mr. G said, his eyebrows raised. “We’ve all been engaged in a sacred task – that’s the real meaning of our lives, you know. So you really can’t go around saying that you’ve been working for me. I’m just a single screw in the grand design. You’re mistaken, gravely so… and so, before all else, you have to be able to answer this question clearly: who have I been working for? That’s what your pay hangs on.” Having said his piece, Mr. G began to burrow deep into his pile of documents with great haste, as if countless treasures might be hidden within.
Wang Gu stood dumbstruck, turning green and white, by turns. But, seeing no other choice, he did his best to remember who, after all, he had been working for. He racked his brains until a cold sweat seeped from his brow, neck, and armpits. Wang Gu really couldn’t remember who he had been working for. When he’d been working, all of his focus had been on the task at hand, allowing this crucial question to fall by the wayside. Unable to find the answer, he finally started to sob. At this, Mr. G stuck his head out again, frowning. “Don’t tell me – you’ve forgotten, haven’t you? Well, you can always look it up in your file, it must be written down somewhere, after all.” With the expression of a man grasping for a life-saving rope, Wang Gu stared up at the mountains of documents. It was only then that he discovered they were already covered with old men, crawling on all fours like insects. Some were still in the act of searching, while others lay silent and unmoving in the valleys of paper. Dead, most likely. To die like that, without having collected their pay – it’s hard to say if they died of exhaustion, or illness, or if they killed themselves out of despair – whatever happened they died without even a proper funeral! It’s really heartless, Wang Gu thought to himself, even as he began to climb, panting and heaving. No matter how long he looked though, he failed to turn up anything with his own name on it.
Just then, an old man came clambering over from a nearby peak, coughing loudly. He greeted Wang Gu, saying, “Hello, hello!” Wang Gu greeted him back. “You don’t recognize me, do you?” the old man said, smiling at Wang Gu. Probably one of my old coworkers, Wang Gu thought. For the life of me though, I can’t seem to remember him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know you.” The old man said, “Actually, I don’t know you either.” “What do you want?” “You’re looking for your file, right?” “That’s right. Can you help me? You must be pretty experienced by now.” “Wouldn’t say that I’m experienced, just that I got here before you, so I’ve already gotten the lay of the land. Here’s what I’ll tell you: you’re never going to find it. So far not one single person has found their file. That said, I can still help you.” He coughed. “How can you help me?” Wang Gu asked, brimming with hope. “You want to know who you’ve been working for, right?” “Exactly!” “Great, great,” he said, coughing again. “Look, I’m too old – I’ve only got so many breaths left in me before I kick the bucket. Probably won’t last the week, even. Compared to me, you’re still young. You still want to live, don’t you? So why not tell Mr. G you’ve been working for me?” “But I don’t remember working for you.” “You just have to say it, that’s all.” He paused to cough. “At any rate, I don’t care.” “It does sound like it might work,” Wang Gu said, but then suddenly clapped a hand to his forehead. “Oh! But that would be a lie – we’d be taking a big risk. Won’t Mr. G be able to guess what’s going on? What if he refuses?” The old man shook his head. “He won’t. Mr. G is a big picture kind of guy – he doesn’t concern himself with trivial questions and technicalities. Besides, from what I can tell, we’re all working for somebody else. You’re working for me, I’m working for you. Everybody works, but nobody is working for themselves. As long as you say you’re working for someone else it should be good enough.” “Okay, but why should I say that I’ve been working for you then?” “No particular reason. Just a fair deal, that’s all. Look, I’m not gonna last the week. We’ll call it a ‘temporary arrangement.’ If you get your pay then you can share a little with me – call it a donation for my coffin, okay?” Cough, cough. “All I know is that I don’t want to end up like them, without even a proper burial.” The old man grimaced, and glanced over at the bodies of the dead scattered across the mountain of paper. His gaze returned to Wang Gu, calculating and also somehow pitiful. Even though he’s come up with a clever idea like this, Wang Gu thought, he still hasn’t gotten his pay yet. “How should we divide it then?” “Seventy-thirty.” “Who gets seventy and who gets thirty?” “Obviously, since you’re working for me I should get seventy and you should get thirty.” The terms were clearly humiliating, but as he watched the corpses piling up in the valleys, Wang Gu found himself filled with despair. And so he agreed to the old man’s terms.
Together, they set off to meet with Mr. G. When the old man explained that Wang Gu had been working for him, Mr. G smiled and tilted his head toward Wang Gu. “Looks like you’ve finally found a way to solve your problem – you’re an old work-unit hand after all!” The comment caught Wang Gu off guard and he mumbled a thank you. “That said,” Mr. G, continued, his expression darkening, “even though he can testify that you were working for him, that’s all he can testify to – there’s no way for him to say for sure whether or not you finished the job. Do you follow my logic here? We’re talking about two different things. So, while I can give him the seven-tenths of your pay that he’s due right now, I still can’t pay you your share yet. You must agree, no?” Hearing this, the old man cackled and made a face at Wang Gu. He bowed before Mr. G and disappeared as quick as smoke into the payroll office next door to collect his money. However long he thought about it, though, Wang Gu couldn’t make sense of Mr. G’s logic. All he could do was protest: “Aren’t these things just two sides of the same coin? If you’re satisfied that I was working for him, then doesn’t that mean I was working?” “No, no,” Mr. G patiently explained. “Working for other people, and working, well, these are two entirely separate concepts, as different as night and day. You don’t understand, because it’s the greatest mystery in the universe: if you determine the location of a given object, you can’t determine its speed at the same time. The single greatest scientific discovery of the past century. Now that we’ve determined you’ve been working for someone else, we can’t very well can’t determine whether or not you’ve been working then, can we? So I can’t give you your pay.” “Mr. G, you’re just making things hard for me, aren’t you?” Wang Gu said, his face turning red and the volume of his voice scaring even him. “Making things hard for you? How could you say such a thing?! No, no, I’m doing this for your own good, of course.” More than just angry, Mr. G seemed slightly disappointed, too.
Wang Gu looked down, ashamed. When it comes to theoretical questions, there’s no arguing with Mr. G, Wang Gu thought. I’ll only end up proving my lack of professionalism, especially now that he thinks I’m an old hand from a work unit. And besides, how could I contradict Mr. G? I’d rather die! All the same, Wang Gu couldn’t help feeling put out. Who is Mr. G working for, after all? And is he really working? Perhaps… he’s only faking it? Could he only be acting like he’s working? But even if he had the guts of a Greek god he wouldn’t have said so out loud. Instead, he sobbed, “I’ve spent my whole life working and I haven’t asked my work unit for a single thing! Today, payday, is the most critical moment in my life. Whatever happens, I can’t just leave empty handed. Just look: the pile of bodies is getting higher and higher – –they’re stinking up your room! And more people keep showing up!” Turning to look behind him, he saw the line of old men getting longer and longer. They scowled at him. “Oh high and mighty Mr. G,” Wang Gu wailed, “Take pity on me!” He fell to his knees. “I won’t get up until you agree to help me.” Mr. G looked down on Wang Gu with disgust. He sighed. “You really think you’ve got what it takes to prove the unprovable?” “Oh, I wouldn’t dare. I just want to state for the record that I’ve never slacked off, not even once. I’ve been working the whole time! Save me!” In the very pupils of Mr. G’s eyes a dim flash of pure white could be seen. Finally, he said, “In that case, there might just be another way – you can ask for a general reckoning. It’s all a matter of calculation, or to put it another way, a matter of science. In this era, you may not believe in anything else, but you have to believe in science. Hasn’t all of our work been in the name of science? Here I stay, in defense of science.” He lifted his finger to point up at the massive accumulation of files and corpses, gleaming in the dark room like a great, holy mountain. “Seeing as you’re an old hand from a work unit, I’m willing to give it a try. Alright then, stand up.”
The so-called ‘reckoning’ made use of those steely eyes of Mr. G’s, for it turned out that the work history of each and every employee was stored within. All he had to do was search for a given record and, having compared the results to a control group, he would be able to ascertain whether Wang Gu had been diligent in completing his tasks, or to put another way, if he had been working. It was a purely mathematical question, similar to Berkeley’s paradox, or Russell’s; a favor from science that Mr. G gave to Wang Gu. Wang Gu sat, stupefied, watching as Mr. G’s eyes turned into two spinning flywheels, shooting off rays of silver light. In fact, the reckoning was over almost as soon as it began – in less than a second the result was in. With great deliberation, Mr. G analyzed the reams of complex data, as if examining some massive astronomical phenomenon. Finally, he spoke: “Well, look at this. You really didn’t slack off for even one moment – you’ve spent your whole life working. But, oh, the data is really interesting. Just look, the data reveals that nobody else has been working, only you and you alone.” “Nobody else has been working, only I’ve been working?” “That’s right. That’s the root of the problem – there’s no control group, so there’s no way to prove that you were working.”
“That’s impossible,” Wang said, laughing awkwardly, as if faced with an enormity of lies, as if he had fallen from one trap right into another. “How so? This is science, just look for yourself. Everything is open and transparent.” As he spoke, Mr. G benevolently let his eyes come to a stop, the pupils aligned square in the middle of the sockets, staring Wang Gu right in the face. But how could Wang Gu have dared to meet his gaze? He looked helplessly down at the ground, as if preparing to be beheaded. “N-no,” he stuttered, “all these years, I saw them with my own eyes, all of them putting everything they had into their work. There were stone layers, and water bearers, and cement mixers… this whole, enormous undertaking relied on every single one of us to build it up, brick by brick, tile by tile – if even one of us had been missing it could never have been finished. It’s not something I could have ever done all on my own. We’ve devoted our lives to this thing.” He wanted to continue, to suggest to Mr. G that perhaps an error had occurred in the reckoning, but his courage failed him. “Oh, that’s not it at all. You were clearly hallucinating. You were the only one working, or thinking you were working. How can it be that you still don’t understand? Since you were the only one who thought you were working, there is no one who can verify that you were working. You can’t even claim to have been an aimless worker, let alone a diligent one – how can you ever expect to collect your pay?” With this succinct summary, Mr. G went back to his pile of documents.
Wang Gu suddenly started to wonder about the things he’d been so busy working on – did they still even exist? Where had he come from? He looked out through the doorway in confusion. The broad avenue was still there, grandly imposing, thronged with multitudes of old men, staggering like ancient reptiles from the Jurassic, rushing towards the garrets arranged along the street like so many pasteboard lighthouses, piercing the day-lit night sky with their very orderliness, all of it startlingly bright in the darkness. Seeing this, Wang Gu finally knew what was what. He agreed that Mr. G was being only logical, because without Mr. G who knew where Wang Gu might be today. Truly, it’s not a question of collecting one’s pay.
And so Wang Gu asked Mr. G one final question: “Now that my life is over, what should I do with myself?” Mr. G stuck out his head once more and, speaking with great warmth, said, “Take up the task you were working on before, of course.”
That’s right, he thought to himself, filled with gratitude. With that, Wang Gu saluted Mr. G and headed back on the road by which he had come. ∎
Translated by Nick Stember and edited by Eric Abrahamsen. This story originally appeared in the May, 2016, issue of Pathlight. It appears here with permission of the author. Photo by Clay Gilliland