Chichi Raha is a fascinating place, its flowers and lakes unforgettable to all visitors. There you cannot see a single inch of exposed soil because the land is covered by vegetation: the anua grass, as fine as silk thread; the kuqin tree, tall enough to scrape the clouds; and many varieties of unnameable, unimaginably strange fruits exuding seductive aromas.
The Chichi Rahans have never needed to worry about making a living. Their life expectancy is high, their metabolism is slow, and they have no natural enemies. They fill their bellies on a diet of various fruits and make their homes inside a type of tree with large, hollow trunks. The average diameter of these tubes is just wide enough to allow an adult Chichi Rahan to lie down comfortably. When the weather is good, the branches hang loosely, but when it rains, the branches rise so that the leaves form a canopy like an umbrella.
Those who visit Chichi Raha for the first time are always confused by how civilization could have developed on such a world. From the perspective of the visitors, in a place lacking crisis and competition, life should be able to survive very well without intelligence. But there is indeed civilization here, and indeed it is beautiful, vigorous, full of creativity.
Many visitors think they would like to retire here. Most of them think their greatest difficulty would be a matter of diet. So, anxiously and carefully, they taste every type of local fruit. But after they’ve stayed awhile, after they’ve attended enough local banquets, they discover—somewhat to their surprise—that while they enjoy the food, they cannot tolerate life here, especially those who are old.
It turns out all Chichi Rahans learn to lie from birth. Indeed, lying is their most important occupation. They spend the entire span of their existence fabricating stories concerning both events that have occurred and events that have not. They write them down, paint them, sing them, but never remember them. They do not care if there’s a correspondence between their words and the facts, their only standard being whether the tale is interesting. If you ask them about the history of Chichi Raha, they will tell you a hundred versions. No one will contradict the version told by another, because each moment, they are already engaged in self-contradiction.
On this world, everyone is always saying, “Yes, I will,” but nothing is ever done. No one takes such promises seriously, though promises do make life more interesting. Only in extremely rare circumstances do the inhabitants do as they promise. And such occasions are celebrated. For example, if two of them make an appointment and both happen to keep it, then they will most likely become a couple and live together. Of course, such occurrences are rare. Most live alone all their lives. The inhabitants do not feel any lack because of this. Indeed, they hear about the overpopulation problems of other planets and feel that their own world is the only one that understands the secret of good living.
So Chichi Raha developed brilliant literature, art, and history and became a famous center of civilization. Many visitors come with the hope that they might hear a local tell family stories in the grass beneath the crown of one of the house-trees.
At one time, some questioned whether a stable society could develop on a planet like this. They imagined Chichi Raha as a chaotic place with no government or commerce. But they were wrong. The planet has an advanced political culture, and the business of exporting fruits has gone on for several centuries without interruption. The habit of lying has never caused problems for these developments and may have even helped them. The only thing Chichi Raha lacks is science. Here every intelligent mind knows a bit of the universe’s secret, but the bits never get the chance to be pieced together.
Hao Jingfang is the author of several novels, a book of travel essays, and numerous short stories published in a variety of venues such as Science Fiction World, Mengya, New Science Fiction, and ZUI Found. Her fiction has been awarded the Galaxy (Yinhe) Award as well as the Nebula (Xingyun) Award. She majored in physics at Tsinghua University as an undergraduate, and afterward conducted graduate studies at the Center for Astrophysics at Tsinghua. Hao recently obtained her Ph.D. in Economics and Management from Tsinghua and currently works for a think tank.
Hao does not limit herself to “genre” writing. Her latest novel, Born in 1984, for instance, would be considered a literary novel. Imaginative and precise, her stories are carefully designed on multiple levels. Her wide range of interests and literary approaches are reflected in the two selections for this anthology, “Invisible Planets,” a fabulist tale in the tradition of Italo Calvino, and “Folding Beijing,” a near-future, economics-based dystopia. Both stories can be read in many ways. “Folding Beijing” was a finalist for the Hugo Award and the Sturgeon Award.
“Tell me about the fascinating planets you’ve seen. But I don’t want to hear anything cruel or disgusting,” you say.
Good. I nod and smile. Of course. No problem.