Hospital by Han Song
(Amazon Crossing, 2023)
A Primer to Han Song edited by Eric J. Guignard
(Dark Moon Books, 2020)
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
Based on what has appeared in English so far, Han Song’s best and most characteristic stories are defined by their involution. Take the novelette “Transformation Subway” (2003, trans. Nathaniel Isaacson). It opens straightforwardly: Zhou Xing is squashed between other passengers on his Monday rush-hour subway train. “Only the existence of a clearly defined endpoint”, we are told, “gave him the necessary patience and tenacity to tolerate the situation”. But on this Monday, the endpoint turns out to not be so clearly defined. Gradually, the passengers realise their train is not passing through the expected stations; there is only an “abyssal blackness” outside the windows.
The subsequent journey is as much metaphysical as science-fictional. At first, the passengers’ concerns are their immediate physiological needs: eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting. Some become sick. They speculate about whether they have been hijacked, or somehow ended up in a simulation. One passenger, Xiao Ji, undertakes to climb out of a window and along the side of the train, in an effort to reach the driver. At this point, the narrative splits, and becomes stranger. For Zhou Xing, inside, time becomes elastic. Before too long days, months, years are passing. The passengers become less civilised, more animalistic; babies are conceived and birthed; a new social organisation emerges. For Xiao Ji, outside in the black, each train car he passes has become a laboratory. In one, passengers appear to be hibernating; in another, they howl like wolves; in a third, they seem to have merged into a kind of hive organism. Both narratives are animated by bleak grotesquerie. Eventually, a destination is reached, and an explanation is offered; but it is the process of elaboration along the way, from the everyday to the outright cosmological, that sticks in the mind.
“Transformation Subway” is to be found in Dark Moon Books’ Primer to Han Song, released in 2020. The collection is short but well-presented; a bibliography of Han Song’s work is particularly welcome. And most stories contain the same type of escalation as “Subway”. In “Fear of Seeing” (2002, trans. Isaacson), a couple give birth to a child with eight eyes in its forehead, in addition to the usual two. Soon, more such children are being born; eventually it becomes clear that they are a harbinger of a change in the nature of the world. “The Wheel of Samsara” (2002, self-translated) is theological SF that brings to mind “The Nine Billion Names of God”, looking inward, to universes within universes. And “Two Small Birds” (1998, trans. John Chu) is another condensed epic, involving a hunter, the hunted, and their would-be rescuer, spanning a hundred thousand years and—again—more than one universe, in less than ten pages. The tonal variation and brevity of the stories means the collection doesn’t feel repetitive, but the pattern is clear.
And on a much grander scale, the pattern recurs in Hospital (2016, trans. Michael Berry), which is the first of Han Song’s numerous novels to appear in English, and the start of a trilogy to boot (volume two is scheduled for November 2023). Indeed, even the very first line of Hospital—“The meaning of travel lies not in the journey but in the destination”—echoes “Transformation Subway”, although given what follows, it is only possible to read this assertion ironically. After a slightly laboured prologue, in which a mission seeking a Buddha on Mars provides an excuse to set out some Buddhist propositions regarding health and medicine that provide an intellectual frame for what follows, the novel switches to a seemingly contemporary setting and to the first-person narrator with whom we will spend the next 400-odd pages. Yang Wei is a government functionary with a sideline in songwriting who is on a business trip to C City. He develops stomach pain after drinking the mineral water in his hotel, at which point two women appear, without having been summoned, and insist that he accompany them to the city’s monumental central hospital. He is swiftly admitted, and then swallowed up by the system, shunted around for tests and between departments, from the emergency room to gastroenterology to general medicine to an inpatient ward, and back to the ER, and eventually to surgery.
The hospital becomes Yang Wei’s entire world, and from one point of view, Hospital sits alongside medical dystopias such as Juli Zeh’s The Method (2009) or Project Itoh’s Harmony (2008): worlds in which societies have been rearranged to prioritise an idealised notion of health. I also thought more than once of the work of Terry Gilliam. Hospital, however, also has an allegorical component that puts it in the tradition descending from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924); Yang Wei’s journey is enlivened by a succession of guides and interlocutors, who can be taken to represent a variety of positions regarding Chinese and global politics and history. But, different to any of the above, but like “Transformation Subway”, Hospital accelerates and expands for its entire length, until it considers not just the fate of the world, but the fate of the universe; yet even in its closing pages, no absolute destination is reached.
So what meaning can be mined from the novel must come from the journey it depicts; but the journey is restless, indirect and full of switchbacks. A new chapter generally indicates not a new event or location, but a new intellectual riff. Han Song’s characters spin out theses rooted, at different times, in actual science, speculative science, actual history, alternate history, and outright philosophical speculation, not infrequently contradicting earlier assertions. Doctors, for instance, are authority figures; rational; irrational; targets of devotion and faith; “a new breed of humans”; possibly immortal. Hospitals are a kind of government; a technological structure; a social structure; essential; the source of illness, because they define the nature of illness; irrelevant or redundant (“the best hospital is no hospital”); or merely “the tip of the iceberg” in what is actually an Age of Medicine. Perhaps the most densely theorised aspect of the novel is the nature of medicine itself. In Hospital, medicine is a site of conflict between the individual and the collective, between past and future, between East and West, and of course between sickness and health. Yang Wei learns about “medical dialectics”, according to which everyone always-already contains within them the seeds of their illness (this being Han Song’s witty spin on the very real drive towards personalised pharmaceutical medicine), and it is not possible to ever be either fully diagnosed or fully cured. “To be healthy is to be sick, to be sick is to be healthy”, is the mantra: so the only choice is to remain within the hospital, and accept its guidance and treatment.
The sheer number of elaborations is dazzling. Many are entertaining, such as the “medical punks” who pop up in a variety of contexts, advocating for radical innovation and transformation, not just of healthcare but of humanity itself. But at times, if taken in anything more than small doses, the execution can make the novel a rebarbative read, particularly when combined with Han Song’s propensity for challenging imagery. Bodily functions are not stinted and beauty and disgust are deliberately confused. A thousand-metre waterfall of discharged phlegm, becomes in Yang Wei’s eyes a sight of great beauty: we can, perhaps, just about wrap our heads around this as the product of a truly health-focused mindset. But it is a stepping-stone to seeing the rest of the hospital—“countless corpse-like bodies of patients moving back and forth”, “the crowded and chaotic concentration camp-like inpatient ward”—as also “a special kind of aesthetic beauty, more enchanting than a gorgeous sunrise”. This is a hyperbolic example in which the absurdity has become straightforward, but one thing Han Song is good at is building up absurdity by degrees, layering in contradictions, and leaving it to the reader to decide when a line has been crossed.
In a detailed translator’s afterword, Michael Berry talks about other layers. Yang Wei’s name, for instance, is a homophone of the Chinese word for impotence, which speaks to his helplessness in the face of the hospital but also the nature of his relations with women (more on that in a moment). Berry also reveals that this English version of Hospital is not in fact a straight translation of the novel as it was published in 2016 in China. What we have received is now the author’s preferred text, but it is based in part on an earlier draft (“much of the content he added later was at the behest of his Chinese editor”), and then divergently revised, including moving arguments from one character to another, and in some cases adding completely new material.
If the revisions were intended to sharpen Hospital’s critique, they must be taken to have failed. But it seems unlikely that was the purpose, because A Primer to Han Song contains an example of what results when Han Song sets out to frame a clear target. “My Country Does Not Dream” was written in 2002, in the wake of China joining the World Trade Organisation, but first published in this collection (trans. Isaacson). Xiao Ji is a Beijing office worker; like everyone else he finds himself growing exhausted, but a new mass-produced drug sets him right and keeps him productive. However, he is contacted by a foreign agent who explains that the drug is only a corrective for the true issue, which is that the entire population is being used at night, while sleepwalking, to do additional work. China has become a zombie nation. Moreover Xiao Ji’s wife, it turns out, in this zombie state, is being used by a high-ranking government official for sex. Escape is attempted, but the result might only be oblivion. It is a strikingly critical story, reminiscent of Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” (2014) in its depiction of the costs of China’s economic growth strategy. But in contrast Hospital’s allegorising feels somewhat scattershot, the narrative trying on different meanings at different times to see how they fit (or to provide a plausible deniability against any one interpretation being taken as the author’s own views).
But if “My Country Does Not Dream” and Hospital differ fundamentally in their approach to political critique, they also share a limitation. It is to be expected, I think, that in a novel like Hospital the characters are primarily symbolic functions; that is, they exist to demonstrate and further argument, they are not intended to be resonant individuals who live beyond the page. Yang Wei himself is an almost blank canvas for the reader to project into, and everyone he meets is a representative of some sort of category—patient, nurse, doctor, surgeon, researcher, and so on. And women. These categories are not presented as mutually exclusive or as rigid—women, for instance, can be doctors; patients can also be doctors, because “doctor” in Hospital is not so much a qualification as an approach to life (“inside every one of us was a slumbering doctor”). And certainly there is a need to consider women as a category within healthcare systems. But the manifestation of that within Hospital is almost purely sexual; sex in fact becomes a kind of therapy, removed from choice or desire. For both participants we are told it is an involuntary need, that it is not pleasurable, and that there are no climaxes, which certainly chimes with the secret code of Yang Wei’s name; but seen always from within Yang Wei’s perspective, the degradation still feels asymmetric, particularly when read shortly after the tale of Xiao Ji’s wife, or some of the encounters that take place as conditions degenerate in “Transformation Subway”. It's a crabbed perspective, and each time it crops up it distracts from what are otherwise frequently expansive and remarkable visions.