Cavalcade of Rejection: 1984 in Chinese

Today's rejection is a bit different. What I've shown you up until now has been speculative or at least spec-adjacent. However, I've also been known to dabble in more realistic content, typically inspired by my own experiences. This is always something of a gamble. Aside from the already low odds of anyone outside of Manhattan (and therefore unable to spend evenings kissing ass at literary salons) getting published in a literary journal, there's the sensitivity of the content itself. It's one thing to have some spec editor tell me my story is uninteresting; it's infinitely worse to hear the same comment from some upper-crust lit editor about my own life.

Today's story was one of my first attempts to break in to a non-spec market. "1984 in Chinese" is inspired by, well...1984 in Chinese, a copy of which I own. You might remember this from a post I wrote many months ago, though I doubt it as no one read the damn thing. In any case, it struck me as a such an unlikely object that I had to write about it.

I probably wouldn't write a story like this today. Not that I have any issues with the prose (I wouldn't be showing you this if I did), but I'm iffy on the subject matter. Americans - who often have limited imaginations when it comes to other countries - have an idea of what life is like here that doesn't match reality. There's this narrative that any nation that's not an America-style democracy must be full of people trembling in fear. I once encountered a person on Quora who wondered if I was in fear for my life for writing about China, and I believe he was serious. Most people aren't far off of that belief.

So I'm torn. I have to write about what's true to my own experience, yet I don't want to write anything that's going to create a false impression and worsen a stereotype...yet I also know that if I don't play to that stereotype and sketch depictions of China as some dystopian nightmare state in need of enlightened Western salvation, it's going to get rebuffed as "inauthentic" by a bunch of people who learned everything they know about the PRC from Thomas Friedman's taxicab confessions. Decisions...

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1984 in Chinese

I don't know why I bought the damn thing, it's not like I'll ever possess the skill to read it, let alone the degree of mastery necessary to compare the writing to that in the original. The original novel, of course, is a classic, but one with roots running deep into the author's language, a plot cast in the vagaries and plasticity of the English tongue. Could one truly reproduce this tale in a language ruled instead by context-dependent ambiguity? Wouldn't it necessarily lose something in the transition of culture and grammar?

More importantly, would the government censors really allow it? And why would they allow even a neutered version to land in a bookstore in plain sight? Questions without answers, questions about which we can only speculate. One thing that is not speculation: Somewhere in the world, there are a million machines that know my name, know my face (even if they can't truly see it), know my background. They know of every missive I've ever written and every transaction I've ever carried to completion, and the same about every soul within their domain.

So what happens when some transient fool opts to purchase such a thing? The second the cashier passed that scanner over the bar code, one of those machines acquired a new juicy tidbit: Owns a copy of George Orwell's 1984 in Chinese. Those machines, inveterate gossips that they are, immediately set to work spreading this delicious fact through their own networks. One of those machines, perhaps, belongs to the government that currently holds me beneath its purview, and that machine is waiting eagerly for the chance to dish to someone with fleshy ears to hear it.

They won't do anything at first - why would they? It's a Western misconception that totalitarian states act in haste to eliminate wrong thought. This is perhaps true of some of the more goonish governments ruling in the ruins of dead states, but modern autocracy is far more insidious than that. The powers that be are willing - in fact, pleased - to allow life for their subjects to proceed normally. The people who labor beneath the iron fist of despotism still live out their lives, still tend to their families, still feed their filthy vices, still harbor their secrets, at least from each other. Fear is a mighty but inartful instrument compared to apathy and complacency, and it is by these tools that the modern tyrannous state exercises control. This bureaucratic oppression is simply too dull to arouse outrage as a more overt act would.

So there are no "disappearances" in the middle of the night, no suspicious accidents, no media-glutted show trials, no dark conspiracies whispered in government antechambers. There is only a lone red flag on a single computer, a single irregularity buried somewhere in the depths of the digital sargassum that clings to the foundations of society. Just the one quiet red flag, one switch in a trillion turned invisibly from zero to one. This is all that happens for the first few weeks, the first few months. It is a defect for which no one cares, no one panics, no one even notices.

Then, one day, there is an incident. What is the nature of this incident? Who was involved? Is he at all relevant to the incident? All irrelevant questions to a council of machines who know nothing but “on” or “off.” In the opening moments of that incident, the masters of those machines set them to work on a single, critical task - make an educated guess as to the perpetrators of the incident, that a second incident will not follow. Thus the machines spool back through those trillions of switches and the quadrillions of connections between them, and at some point in this process their numb eyes land upon that red flag, that socially suspicious purchase. Now a subprocess whirs to life as a new set of machines, a new electronic panel, searches for connections between this one harmless yet unacceptably suspicious act and anything else of note. They find nothing, for there is nothing to find.

And yet, the machines, these perfect bureaucrats, continue their work. They pass back over their original work, and then again, and again, and with each recursion that red flag looks larger. Now a second switch has turned on, this one for a suspicious number of searches. Weeks pass, and the perpetrators of the incident have been apprehended (or, barring that, the state has decided to pretend that it was never much of an incident to begin with), but those two ones are still there. Every time the electronic hive studies itself, it takes note of that, and with time it adds more suspicious behavior. He made a few too many late night internet searches, or bought a lot of imported junk food from a store that, itself, was flagged many years ago - trivial offenses but for that pair of switches screaming at the algorithm to notice them. A third switch is turned, then a fourth, at which point the grand algorithm takes notice. Now the whole network is sweeping back and forth, and with each recursion the network notices new problems, and those flags are growing exponentially - fields of red flags, like the building facades at one of those universities where this person spends a suspicious amount of time.

Now the machines are screaming again but this time someone with some small measure of genuine authority has taken notice. Living eyes have fallen upon this foreigner and his strange, slightly suspicious habits, and a new network is engaged. They start exactly as anyone working in the 21st century would - paging through the archives of his digital life for any hint of disruptive intent. This step is invisible until one of the censors slips up and leaves some trace of himself on a website, a red flag of his own. Or is it an error at all? Is this, perhaps, a subtle bit of fearmongering to gauge for a reaction? It seems unlikely – a less obsessive soul wouldn't take notice – but then everyone knows that the state makes no mistakes.

More systems fire to life. The cameras are everywhere, but some are less blind than others. Some of them behave strangely now, moving in a way that betrays some trace of mechanical ingenuity, following his footsteps a bit too closely. The eyes of the city are infinite, but a few are backed with a mechanical simulation of sapience. They can spot this potential agitator wherever he goes and, with time, the operators know his schedule and routes at least as well as he does. Any deviation from this electronically determined center point flicks even more switches, and triggers even more systems, and summons more investigators.

This is where things start to change in ways that are more tangible for that imbecile who thought that all he was doing was purchasing an ironic souvenir. The police drop by one night to check his passport - he does keep that with him at all times, right? His computer hasn't been working right, and a cursory investigation turns up programs that he never noticed before. Paranoia is hardly a necessary ingredient, he must have just overlooked those...but wasn't there that problem with the camera before, where it sometimes seemed like it had clicked to life unprompted? And when, exactly, had he enabled those options on his phone? It's not true paranoia, of course, because people are undeniably watching, but which sinister group is it this time?

He isn't yet afraid, though, because he is protected by a national privilege. True, he is not a rich man by any means, but he hails from a rich country and that identity bears some power. The people from the poor countries, they are routinely victims of state overreach because the state has no fear of retribution. People from countries such as his are never victims unless their trespasses are so overtly and brazenly vile that their own homelands no longer want anything to do with them. Whatever offense he has committed - and he can think of a few, all trivial in the grand scheme of things - he is still safe.

Then even more eyes fall upon him, and this time it isn't just those cold electronic sensors but actual people. Such a man stands out already for his foreign features, but surely they didn't always stare like this? Now he is sure that his paranoia is justified. At some point, his face must have been drawn to public attention. Why? It doesn't matter except in some abstract sense. He is the enemy of the entire system now, and the entire system - organic, mechanical, the distinction blurring together in the wake of the behemoth - is now aware of his existence. Of course it had always known, but now it had reason to take notice, and invisibility was a fantasy.

Even so, life goes on. He lives his life and pursues his dreams and indulges in his vices and for all of the staring eyes - and there are more by the day - little else has changed. He grapples with the idea of escape, though this is now an impossibility and on some level he understands that. The best tactic, insofar as there is one, is to wait until the system finds a more dangerous agitator. Eventually, the dragon will spot finer prey with a weaker belly and move on.

Then there is another incident, and the final process clicks into place. This time it is not subtle. This time, the system makes itself known. The shadows are now tangible and they move at the speed of violence, and that one poor soul's fate no longer belongs to him.

The situation is preposterous, of course, but even so I was sure to buy my Chinese copy of George Orwell's 1984 in cash. And in the months since, as I've flipped through the pages and considered those glyphs that I can scarcely understand, my only explanation is that the system allowed this transaction because the advance of time has rendered the author's warnings a footnote.

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