A girl, trapped between two clashing worlds, must make sense of the past and face the future.
A century ago, the Martian colonies rebelled against the rule of Earth. Having declared an independent Martian Republic, the two planets evolved along separate trajectories, becoming two incompatible worlds vastly different in their scale, economy, socio-political system, and mostly importantly of all, ideals.
Inhabitants of the two planets have come to view each other with suspicion and even hatred. Five years ago, with the apparent goal of reconciliation, the Martian government sent a group of students to Earth to study humanity’s home planet and act as goodwill ambassadors from the Red Planet. Now the students have returned to Mars, accompanied by a group of prominent Earth delegates, to see if the two worlds can learn to co-exist in peace and friendship.
Almost immediately, negotiations break down and old enmities erupt.
Luoying, a gifted Martian dancer, finds herself caught in the crosscurrents of political intrigue and philosophical warfare. Martians and Terrans, artists and politicians, old friends and new mentors, classic books and revolutionary ideas – everyone and everything challenges her, pushing her to declare her allegiance. Attuned to the hopes and fears of both her native land and the world on which she came of age, Luoying must shoulder the burden of discovering the truth through the web of lies spun by both sides. She must chart a new course between history and the future that is coalescing around her. If she fails, everything she’s ever loved will be destroyed.
Hao Jingfang leads the new generation of Chinese science fiction writers. In 2016, she won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for ‘Folding Beijing’ (also translated by Ken Liu) – the first Hugo awarded to a Chinese woman. With a PhD in economics, Hao works as a macroeconomics researcher at the China Development Research Foundation in Beijing. #Vagabonds
Once, a group of children was born on one world and grew up on another.
The world they were born into was a tower of rigid rules; the world they grew up on was a garden of rambling disorder. One was a magnificent, austere blueprint; the other was a wild bacchanalia. The two worlds shaped the children’s lives one after the other, without seeking their consent, without consideration for their feelings, like two links in the chain of fate, sweeping them up in cold, irresistible tides.
What had been put together in the tower was smashed to bits in the garden; what had been forgotten in drunken revelry was still memorialized in the blueprint. Those who lived only in the tower never suffered the loss of faith; those who lived only for the pursuit of pleasure had no vision to strive for. Only those who had wan- dered through both worlds could experience that particular stormy night in which distant mirages faded away and countless strange flowers blossomed in the wasteland.
As a result of their experience, they suffered in silence and became the target of every criticism.
Who these children were and how they came to live such lives are questions that could be fully answered only with the help of two hundred years of complicated history. Even the children themselves couldn’t offer a lucid explanation. They were perhaps among the youngest in the millennia-long history of the exiled. Before they even understood what fate was, they had been tossed into its vortex; while still ignorant of the existence of other worlds, another world had snatched them away. Their exile began at home, and they had no vote in history’s direction.
Our story begins at the moment when the children were returning home. The body’s journey was coming to an end, but the heart’s exile was only about to begin.
This is the tale of the fall of the last utopia.
The ship was about to dock. Time to turn out the lights.
The ship swayed in space like a drop of water gently flowing into the arc-shaped port. The ship was very old and glowed dimly like a badge that had been polished by time until the sharp angles and edges had worn away. Against the darkness of space, the ship seemed minuscule, and the vacuum accentuated its loneliness. The ship, the sun, and Mars formed a straight line, with the sun at the far end, Mars close at hand, and in the middle, the ship whose course was straight as a sword, its edge fading into obscurity.
Surrounded by darkness, the silvery drop of water approached the shore, very much alone.
This was Maearth, the only link between Earth and Mars.
The ship was unaware that, a hundred years before its birth, this port had been filled with transports shuttling back and forth like barges along a busy river. It was the second half of the twenty- first century, when humanity had finally broken through the triple barriers of gravity, the atmosphere, and psychology, and, full of anxiety and excitement, they sent cargo of every description to the distant red planet of their dreams. Competition extended from low Earth orbit all the way to the surface of Mars as men and women serving different governments in different uniforms speaking different languages, completed different missions pursuant to differ- ent development plans. The transports back then had been clumsy, like metal elephants wrapped in thick gray-green steel skin, step- ping across the gulf of space, slow and steady, thumping into the dusty surface of Mars, yawning open their cargo bay doors to disgorge heavy machinery, boxes of food, and eager minds full of passion.
The ship was also unaware that, seventy years before its birth, government transports were gradually replaced by private commer- cial development vessels. For thirty years Martian bases were all the rage, and the sensitive feelers of merchants, like magic bean- stalks, rose inch by inch into the sky, and Jacks climbed up with bills of lading and lines of credit, ready to explore this wonderland of sandstorms. Initially businesses focused on physical goods, and an alliance between big business and big government connected the two worlds with a web woven from land easements, sourcing licenses, and space product development rights, all gilded with stir- ring lines of poetry. Eventually attention shifted to knowledge itself, following the same path traced by the historical development of economies on Earth, except that a process that had taken two centuries in the past was compressed into twenty years. Intangible assets dominated business deals, and those who loved money plucked the brains of scientists like ripe fruits until virtual fences rose up between Martian bases. Back then the ships that plied the dark sea of space had carried spinning restaurants filled with cock- tail parties and talk of contracts, an attempt to replicate the hubbub on Earth.
The ship was also unaware that, forty years before its birth,
warships appeared along its current route. Once the war for Martian independence erupted—there were many causes—the adventurers and engineers of the various Martian bases united to resist their Earth-based overseers. With astronautics and prospect- ing technology, they sought to overcome money and political power. Warships linked together like Themistocles’s wooden wall to repel the invaders, a force as magnificent as the swelling tide, and which retreated just as quickly. Nimble, speedy warplanes then rushed in, propelled across the gulf of space by the rage of betrayal, at once wild and dispassionate, dropped their bombs so that bloody flowers bloomed silently in the dust.
The ship knew none of these things, because by the time it was born, a cease-fire had been in place for ten years. The night sky was once again silent, and the once-busy shipping route deserted. It was born in all-consuming darkness. Assembled from metallic fragments drifting in space, it faced the starry sea alone, shuttling back and forth between two planets, plying an ancient trade route that had witnessed both the glory of commerce and the devastation of war.
The ship sailed noiselessly across empty space, a single silvery drop traversing distance, traversing vacuum, traversing invisible ramparts, traversing a history deliberately forgotten.
Thirty years had passed since the ship’s birth, and time’s lasting tracks adorned its worn shell.
The inside of the ship was a maze. Except for the captain, no one understood its true layout.
It was a huge ship. Stairways connected multiple decks filled with twisting passages and honeycombed cabins. Large storage compartments scattered around the ship resembled palaces fallen into ruin, their spacious interiors piled with goods and equipment, their dusty corners confessing to an absence of visitors. Narrow passageways connected these palaces with bedrooms and dining halls, and the knotty structure resembled the plot of some particu- larly complicated novel.
Passengers walked on the inside of the cylindrical hull, held there by centrifugal force as the hull spun. The thick central axis was the sky. The ship was full of outdated decorative elements: columns with relief carvings, tiled floors, old-fashioned mirrors hanging on walls, ceilings covered by murals. This was how the ship paid respect to time, commemorated the fact that there had once been a time when humanity was not divided from itself.
On this particular journey the ship carried three separate groups of passengers: one was a fifty-member delegation from Earth, the second a fifty-member delegation from Mars, and the last twenty students from Mars who had been studying on Earth.
The two official delegations were putting on two world’s fairs on two planets. After the successful conclusion of the Martian world’s fair on Earth, the first ever Terran world’s fair was about to open on Mars. The two delegations brought all kinds of interesting goods to show Earth the wonders of Mars, and vice versa, so that each side could be reminded of the presence of the other. After a long period of mutual isolation, this was how they would get to know each other again.
The students, all aged eighteen, were called the Mercury Group. Having spent the last five years living on Earth, they were now on their way home. Mercury was the messenger of the gods and also a planet outside the dyad of Earth and Mars; it repre- sented the desire to communicate.