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Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

“The Year of the Rat” is a near-future story that seems both plausible and utterly fantastic, weaving together elements of science (genetic modification and economic) and fantasy (anthropomorphized intelligent rats). By doing this, it becomes a story that is both meaningful and whimsical, serious and satiric, and both familiar and unfamiliar.

The story gets its name from the Chinese Zodiac, which is the twelve year cycle in which years are represented by animals. But more than that, the subjects of ire in the story are genetically modified rats that have somehow gotten loose and are romping around the Chinese countryside. In an interesting play on words, it seems that Quifan is tying Chinese astrology to his story, which increases the power of the fantastic. It is quite obvious, however, that Qiufan’s style is to meld Chinese culture and history into global ideas and global problems.

The story opens with a first-person, present-tense account of a platoon of men marching in the middle of nowhere, with the unnamed narrator reflecting on the death of a character that they call Pea. The narrator is carrying Pea’s biology textbook and his glasses, both of which are possessed of more emotional weight than physical weight for the narrator, despite his complaints.

Good students and bad students are in this unit. We’re meant to understand that the narrator is a bad student, who later admits to being lazy and lacking in ambition. Pea was a bright, passionate student with a love of his field of study. This isn’t merely a commentary on China’s complex economy and where people–particularly young people–fit into it, but in a broader sense where people fit into the global economy. I suspect that’s why so many details are left out of the story, like the name of the narrator, the name of the Drill Instructor, or the names of any of the locations in the plot.

So the narrator is shouldering the burden of Pea’s “goddamned” book as a keepsake to send to his parents, as well as his glasses, thinking that they reflected the best aspects of who Pea was. It’s interesting to me that the two things that he grabs are symbols of intellect, perhaps a message of values.

Pea, we are told, was impaled on a sharp branch after having fallen several hundred meters down the side of a dam in an attempt to collect a rare plant. Of the incident, the narrator tells us that the Drill Instructor wants to say, “You college kids are idiots. You don’t even know how to stay alive” (p. 24). Throughout the story, there is a meta-commentary on students by the characters: college doesn’t prepare young people for the real world, or their education isn’t practical, or even if it is practical it isn’t useful in the economy, or an administrator says that the students are the future of the country (which consigns them to this pointless drudgery).

I think that there’s a perception that science fiction isn’t a human literature; that it’s about technology, or it’s about aliens and robots and other “nerdy” things. But the best science fiction is an exploration of humanity and themes that are important to us both in real, practical terms and in the abstract. So when the narrator implicitly expresses shame that he cries over Pea’s death, we see the humanization of these characters, and we empathize with them. This is of greater concern to the story than what’s actually going on around in the background with the rats, the army, the genetic engineering, or the college. These are humans, with human stories, that we can relate to. Yes, science fiction is the exploration of ideas, but it’s also the exploration of what it means to be, to exist in this universe and to be bound by it because we are of it.

The pattern of the narration begins to unfold as we’re transported back in time in the next section, and the narrator begins to describe when he and Pea first met at a university mobilization meeting. Throughout the story the narration jumps back and forth in time as the narrator recounts the events of the past to fill in the details of the present. It’s an interesting strategy, and it does a fairly decent job of preserving mystery and tension in the present.

The narrator describes, in the past tense, how at this meeting there’s a red banner that reads, “It’s honorable to love the country and support the army; it’s glorious to protect the people and kill rats” (p. 24). It serves to highlight two things in conflict: the hapless college students who join the army because they cannot find employment, and the rats who are guilty only of being genetically engineered for the amusement of humans. In this conflict we find that the problem can be distilled into one thing: human activity. The rats aren’t really inherently a threat (the rarity of sightings of the rats, as expressed by the narrator at the opening of the story, doesn’t really make it believable that this is an infestation), but they do seem to be a threat on an economic level.

What I really appreciate about this story, however, is that I see in the narrator a lot of myself and the people of my generation. Sometimes we think of other cultures as being impenetrable because of language barriers, difficulties in learning local customs, different politics, or maybe even the differences of the food. Some of these are cosmetic, and when you scratch the surface you find thoughts, desires, fears, and experiences that you possess or have possessed. This is no more readily apparent than in the paragraph in which the narrator explains why he purposefully failed his Classic Chinese exam: he didn’t want to grow up.

By this I mean that he didn’t want to participate in the morass of the modern world. A nine-to-five job, rent, insurance, etc. College was a sanctuary from that; he says directly that “school was more agreeable…” (p. 25). And, like many of my generation, he feels the squeeze imposed upon him by a hostile economy. Are these excuses? Sure, they can be, and I think that he admits as much between the lines, but maybe that’s just my own thinking being imprinted onto the narrator. That might be the point.

So what kinds of rats demand the attention of a branch of the army called the “Rodent-Control Force?” According to Pea, Neorats (TM). A trademarked genetically enhanced rat needs to be obliterated by a state-sanctioned pest control force. The narrator goes through a list of possible ways to kill the rats that wouldn’t require forming a band of humans armed with knives scouring the countryside, but Pea shoots each down in succession as being too expensive or impractical given economic pressures.

It’s no surprise that the primary motivating factor for joining this force is economical, then: “Members of the Rodent-Control Force are given food and shelter, with guaranteed jobs to be assigned after discharge” (p. 26). So why the strong focus on the economy? I can’t speak for past generations, or even for the point-of-view of the author, but from my Western Millennial perspective it’s because the complex vicissitudes of the economy are central in our minds so much of the time. Is it economical to get a degree, even if the promise of a degree (one not necessarily kept) is to make more money? With all of this debt can I buy a house and start a family, or should I wait? Are my job prospects in this field even secure enough?

So many of our life choices are out of our hands, it seems. The narrator says that “Staying in school was not really [his] ‘choice'” (p. 25). A lot of us can relate to that, and this issue of choice, or merely the appearance of choice, runs rampant throughout the text of the story. Illusion is a central theme of “The Fish of Lijiang,” the next story in Invisible Planets I’ll be reviewing, and I think Qiufan has a solid grip on how a lot of what we see as the foundation of our cultures or our ways of life is, in some sense, a shared illusion, and that this crosses cultural gaps is not surprising.

Humans are creatures of narrative; we tell stories to make sense of the world. This is why I believe that Qiufan’s use of the unnamed narrator is especially useful in this story. It’s very easy for even Western readers to put themselves into this story because of a shared narrative. Sometimes these narratives are not true reflections of reality, but more often reflections of our perceptions of reality.

So the question arises now, and more aggressively later: how much of the narration can we trust? We know that the narrator has imperfect knowledge, that he is not privy to certain important events directly, and that he has a biased perspective. Later we’ll learn that the rats can affect a person’s perception such that they hallucinate, so might some of his memories be false? How much trust do we want to afford the narrator? There’s no easy answer, and I suspect that it’s much less than I have afforded him.

The platoon returns to “the town” to resupply, and this is the first we hear of Li Xiaoxia and her “long, long legs.” But our focus should be on the town that, like the narrator, is unnamed. Perhaps this is because the narrator doesn’t know the name of the town because of his imperfect knowledge. We get a view into his priorities here, too, because he writes a full postcard to Xiaoxia while only writing, simply, “I’m sorry for your loss” (p. 26) to Pea’s parents.

Who is Xiaoxia, and what does she have to do with this story? Well, that’s hard to say. In both “The Year of the Rat” and “The Fish of Lijiang” women seem to be objects of desire that are both unobtainable and holders of secret knowledge that the narrator doesn’t possess. I believe that this is a really cheap plot device and that it also misuses characters because Xiaoxia doesn’t seem to have any other role in the story.

There’s also a hint that the platoons are an attempt to alleviate an unemployment problem. The men of the narrator’s platoon talk about rumors that another platoon had used their detector for tracking the rats to find mineral and natural gas deposits, and that they have solved “the unemployment problem of the platoon in one stroke” (p. 27). I think we can infer that the platoons are made up (maybe entirely) of unemployed college students, or college students that are having difficulty finding employment. And this, again, connects back with real-world problems of young college graduates trying to find employment in fields related to their degrees, maybe learning that the degree that they work hard to earn might not even be worth the paper it’s printed on. This is exemplified by the fact that we have Pea, a graduate student in biology, and the narrator, a student in Chinese literature, as brothers-in-arms in the Rodent-Control Force. The two have nothing in common save for the fact that they are unemployed.

The story likes to hit us over the head with this theme of people struggling in the economy, and as we’re transported back to the moment that the narrator and Pea are back in boot camp we get a whole rant dedicated to it. The Drill Instructor asks them why they are there, to which Pea responds “To protect the motherland” (p. 27). Everybody laughs at this, and the Drill Instructor reacts with hostility. The Drill Instructor tells them “You’re here because you’re all failures…your parents spent their coffin money on your tuition. But in the end, you couldn’t even find a job, couldn’t even keep yourselves alive. You’re good only for catching rats! Actually, you’re even lower than rats. Rats can be exported for some foreign currency, but you?” (p. 28). It’s the economy, stupid! The rats are serving as an analogy here, comparing their relative worth with the worthlessness of the human college graduates. And to heighten the absurdity, these worthless college graduates will be used to kill those very rats.

It’s a meat grinder. The absurdity of this scene, from my perspective, is that it rings too true. The narrator may have been using excuses to explain why he wasn’t employed, but the fact remains that even someone like Pea couldn’t find employment. The blame is shifted upon the innocent (or relatively innocent) who were merely doing what they were told would make them successful. And because we know Pea died in an effort to collect a rare plant, we know that he probably had passion for his subject of study. The students were merely caught up in forces (the economy) that they didn’t control and couldn’t predict.

But the next day they got an audience with the district’s administrator, who quotes from Chinese literature and gives them a lesson on the dangers of rat infestation and an economic analysis of why they must be eradicated. And in contradiction of the Drill Instructor, the administrator says that they were “the best of the best, the future leaders of our country” (p. 29). The hand that promises food (and even offers a morsel) versus the hand that flips over the table so none can eat. This is one of the central contradictions of Millennial life that we’ve had to navigate, and it is fairly accurately represented here with the contrast between the Drill Instructor and the administrator.

So we’re faced with the possibility that the state is lying to the narrator for its own purposes. Of the two, I am inclined to find the Drill Instructor the most trustworthy. Partially this is because of the bias of my experience, but the Drill Instructor is an established character that, despite the rough introduction, seems to actually care about the students through his later actions. This means that, for me, the administrator, the representative of the state, is less trustworthy. Given the way that the propaganda easily flows from his mouth I’d say that the state itself isn’t that trustworthy.

So are they really fighting the rats for the reasons that the state says that they are? There are reasons to doubt that. When the narrator comes back to the present, he describes that the official word from the state is “relentlessly upbeat: the Rodent-Control Force units in several districts have already been honorably discharged and have been assigned good jobs with a few state-owned enterprises. But among the lucky names in the newsletter I don’t recognize anyone I know. No one else in the platoon does, either” (p. 29). Given that, earlier, the narrator said that in order to prevent desertion they were placed in units far away from their homes, and that the students in the unit were drawn from all over the country, it seems unlikely that none of the names would be recognizable, especially if they had friends that were posted in other units.

The Neorats, in a way, are both comparisons and contrasts of humans, as the Drill Instructor previously notes in his rant. Black Cannon, a member of the narrator’s force, seems to take pleasure in the killing of a pregnant male Neorat, whereas the Neorats themselves do not kill any humans directly (or maybe even indirectly–that’s less clear).  The humans in the story seem to be adapting to economic conditions, whereas the Neorats are overcoming engineered genetic limitations that control their population to make them more valuable. That value is reduced by larger populations of Neorats, just as the value of human labor is reduced by a glut of people in the market; and if humans are less valuable than the Neorats, what’s to stop men from killing each other?

Further, we learn in a flashback from Xiaoxia that China doesn’t control the technologies of the Neorats, and instead imports the embryos, raises them, and then sells them to other nations as luxury pets. Xiaoxia compares China’s role in the endeavor to that of an assembly line, just another sector of the industrialized Chinese economy and not a significant leap in their technology. The situation feels a lot like rats trapped in a maze, as if the people in that economy are sort of trapped because they’re still the world’s factory. If they are involved in the least technology-intensive part of the process, what’s the incentive to get degrees that are geared for technology?

Xiaoxia further claims that it is said that the rats didn’t escape, but were released by the farmers in order to gain economic leverage against the government. Another rumor, she says, is that the Western Alliance released them for more power in trade negotiations. The scenario being presented here is a tangled web of economic interests intersecting and, in some cases, conflicting, with people like the narrator and Pea caught in the middle. So, like I said before, the rats and the humans caught in the crossfire seem to have many things in common on an abstract level–acting merely as pawns for other interests.

In the next section, the narrator says that he feels like they’re being watched and analyzed by “bright eyes” that “are hidden in the dark” (p. 32), and that he feels like he’s going a little crazy. Again, it feels a lot like this narration in the present could be the product of a flawed perspective. Xiaoxia says, in the past, that “the truth is ever elusive” (p. 32) with regard the cause of the Neorats’ escape. But this is also true of a lot of the narrative, including the information we’re getting from the narrator.

Is he being watched and analyzed like he thinks or is it paranoia? We learn that the Neorats can cause hallucinations; perhaps this is merely a paranoid hallucination. Or maybe the Neorats really are evolving in leaps and bounds due to some ill-advised genetic meddling, and they have the kind of organizational capacity that could lead to such purposeful covert surveillance.

Perhaps that has merit. The platoon stumbles upon an abandoned rat settlement with complicated nests. The narrator wonders why they would need such a place, and wonders if they have agriculture. Black Cannon laughs and tells them to stop seeing them like people and the narrator agrees, adding that they’re not real rats, just products that failed quality control.

If the connection between human and rat in this story exists, this is the linchpin. We’re told repeatedly that the college students in the Rodent-Control Force are failures, and the Drill Instructor tells them that they couldn’t survive on their own. So, speaking metaphorically, you might even say that they didn’t pass quality control.

After they discover that the paw prints lead out of the structures that they find, they discover a kind of ritual area where male rats are hanging from a tree, bellies open. Here is where, I think, we get confirmation that the Neorats are becoming more human; they’ve ritualized the sacrifices of the males that birthed them in a kind of cathedral, which has aesthetically placed rocks, white sand, and a ring of prints in the sand around the tree, like a funeral procession.

The narrator’s paranoia only increases, and he claims that he hears whispers. As he chases a Neorat into the woods he see Pea come out of the woods into a clearing, whole, as well as a younger version of his parents. Of this he says, “Tears roll down my face. I don’t need logic. I don’t need sense” (p. 36). He is later found in the clearing by the Drill Instructor. He was left vulnerable, separated from his platoon, and yet the rats didn’t attack him or harm him. It seems only that he was incapacitated.

So why didn’t the rats attack him? The rats are not inherently hostile or aggressive, unlike the humans trekking through the woods to kill them. Or, maybe more ominously, the rat was bait to lure the narrator into a trap, essentially setting up an experiment by which they tested the effectiveness of whatever hallucinogen they’re using to cause the paranoia and altered mental state. As far as we know, this was not part of their nature before this scene. The rats are adapting and surviving, becoming both more like humans in their mental abilities and less like humans in the way that they respond to aggression.

Conversely, the humans of the Rodent-Control Force are becoming more like animals: “…I never would have imagined that I would get to bathe only once a week, that I’d be sleeping with lice in the mud, that I’d fight other men my age for a few stale wowotue biscuits, that I’d tremble with excitement at the sight of blood” (p. 36). Black Cannon, in one of the flashbacks to boot camp, assigns himself extra drills with his spear, and in their first “battle” he kills eight rats, skins one, and keeps the skin as a trophy. Killing the rats becomes a vocation, normalized. They keep tally of their kills by collecting the tails, which the narrator likens to test scores, designed to help place them into jobs when they’re done.

I think Pea realizes that the lines between human and Neorat are starting to dissolve, and he may be the only one. He tells the narrator that he can’t kill rats and then says, “I think the rats didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just like us, doing the best they can in this world. But our role is to chase them, and their role is to be chased. If we swapped roles, it would make no difference” (p. 38). This conclusion is jarring. As the events unfold in the present, we see the prescience of Pea’s statements as the roles of rat and man reverse, or at the very least, are made equal.

There are more hints that the government has ulterior motives for creating the Rodent-Control Force. First, the units all have a quota of rats to kill, and they cannot cross into another platoon’s area and claim their kills. If their jobs are to kill rats, why must they follow that rule? Second, the government doesn’t update the quota to take into account their new breeding and numbers. That’s odd, considering that the existence of the Rodent-Control Force is predicated entirely on killing the escaped rats. Third, the narrator notices in passing three stories on a news channel’s ticker: “The rodent-control effort is progressing well,” “The Western Alliance has agreed to a new round of trade talks concerning the escalating tension with our country,” and “Employment opportunities for new college graduates are trending up.” The first is a flat-out lie, the second plays into the idea that this is a charade to leverage more power in trade negotiations, and the third gives credence to the idea that the forces themselves were designed to take pressure off a saturated job market.

Qiufan also appeals to the subject of mirror neurons to make the connection between rat and man. Pea captures a baby rat, and the narrator learns about it. “‘It was really cute,’ he said ‘Look at the eyes!’ He tried to appeal to my mirror neurons” (p. 40). The baby rat can even mimic Pea’s gestures. The narrator uses the baby rat as bait to see if they can lure adult rats to it, and of course, it works. The narrator, upon finding that the rats that fell into the trap were building a pyramid to get the baby out, remarks that the adults were saving a baby that was a stranger.

Here I have to level my second criticism. During this flashback, the narrator mentions that the male rats can get pregnant. We know that this was discovered by the narrator after Pea had died, and at first this caused me confusion. Then I realized that since the flashbacks are written in past-tense, the narrator is speaking with his present knowledge, not the knowledge he had in the past. This isn’t immediately clear, and it took me several rereads for me to understand what Qiufan was doing here and not write it off as an inconsistency in the story, especially because he talked about his actions in the past as “founded on guesses” (p. 41). To me it implies that the questions that followed were questions the narrator was asking in the past, which of course would me that he would have to know about the male rats’ ability to get pregnant before he discovered it.

Moving on, in the present Black Cannon wants to split the platoon in two and take the best soldiers to catch the rats. The narrator opposes this, saying that the platoon sticks together or that they’re no better than the rats. We then learn that Black Cannon killed Pea, or was in some way responsible for his death. Black Cannon showed a lot of antipathy for Pea, who was empathetic to the rats, so it makes some kind of morbid sense for Black Cannon to take out Pea. This sets the stage for a conflict between Black Cannon and the narrator later on.

Eventually they walk into a trap set by the Neorats. They’re surrounded by a fog that seems to give them hallucinations, like the kind that beset the narrator previously. The narrator hears a scream, and then metal striking against metal. His paranoia is increasing, and he’s getting desperate and extremely fearful. Like a cornered animal. He’s suddenly set upon by a rat the size of a man, with blood on its claws, that pins him to the ground. The claws rip through his clothes, tearing his flesh, and the narrator says that the rat has a familiar grin. At the last second, he takes advantage of a loud bang that distracts the rat, and pushes it off and hits it in the head with his spear. As he gets up, another rat approaches, larger, and holding a gun.

Of course, the rat with the gun was really the Drill Instructor, and the rat that attacked the narrator was Black Cannon. The story has come full circle: the rats and the humans switched places, and the hunter became the hunted. “The Year of the Rat” was quite literal in man’s descent into barbarism, and the rats’ climb into sentience. The rats didn’t have to kill or attack the humans because they developed a way to turn the humans against each other. They planned a trap, set it, and then let the humans attack each other, aided by Black Cannon’s sociopathic violence. From human to animal, and from animal to human. The rats don’t seem to want to act aggressively toward the humans, they just want to survive.

But they don’t get that chance. From a helicopter taking the narrator and the Drill Instructor to a hospital, they see millions of rats walking upright, with furs in various colors that give them “a sense of proportion and aesthetics” (p. 48), just like their structures. At the hospital, the narrator sees the news, which reports “Our country has reached a preliminary agreement with the Western Alliance considering the trade dispute” (p. 48). It’s no coincidence that the trade dispute is resolved simultaneously with a pre-programmed death march of the rats to the ocean, where they then turn on each other and kill each other in the same kind of mad, primal frenzy that engulfed the hallucinating humans.

The narrator laments, “It’s as if some genetic switch has been flipped by an invisible hand, and their confident climb toward civilization has been turned in a moment into the rawest, most primitive instinct” (p. 48). There’s another thought here, between the lines, about how if we’re just like the rats, we could just be as close to climbing toward even higher reaches of civilization only to fall into frenzied destruction.

Of humans, the narrator concludes, “We are just like the rats, all of us only pawns, stones, worthless counters in the Great Game…But when the two players in the game, the two sides, have concluded their business, all sacrifices become justified–whether it’s the Neorats or us” (p. 49). And this follows from everything that happens throughout the story. The conflict with the rats is rolled into nationalism and economics, relating the rats to the college students by metaphor until, at the end, they’re the same. The Rodent-Control Force will be disbanded as the rats essentially commit mass-suicide, and the narrator is considered a hero and will probably get the promised job. The death of Pea, the grievous injuries done to the other soldiers by Black Cannon, and the increasingly civilized nature of the rats–including architecture, religion, and sacrifice–all swept under a rug to justify the ends.

As I’ve said before, this novel strikes me particularly hard because of the theme of being pawns in a greater game, one that we can’t see. What are the lines between what you’re expected to do, what you want to do, and what you can do? We’re lost in the morass of civilization, surrounded by millions of other people competing for the same jobs, money, houses, and food. We’re playing a game, and most of us are playing it blindly, subject to the whims of other, more powerful, people. We try to find individuality, things that define us against everyone else. Maybe it’s a pair of nerdy glasses or a biology textbook and an abundance of empathy. Maybe it’s our laziness or mediocre performance. Maybe it’s our dreams of being a hero and doing something good with our lives. But on a larger scale, we’re all participants in an economy, and in some ways that’s as far as our usefulness extends.

In the end, you have to wonder: did the name “Rodent-Control Force” apply to the action of hunting the rats, or was it an ironic name given to the humans within it? Who were the real rodents, and who was being controlled? Maybe it was both the rats and the humans.

I give “The Year of the Rat” 4.5 out of 5 stars for its engaging writing, fascinating story, and thought-provoking technique. The story is designed to be vague, allowing the reader to interpret parts of it according to their perspective. It is definitely a challenging read, not only because of the subjects it raises, but because of the demand for you to reflect upon the nature of humanity.

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