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UFO in Her Eyes
Xiaolu Guo
Chatto & Windus, 200 pages

UFO in Her Eyes
Xiaolu Guo
Xiaolu Guo was born in 1973. After graduating from the Beijing Film Academy, she published a number of books in China. Since 2002, she has been dividing her time between London and Beijing. She has written and directed award-winning documentaries; her first feature film How is Your Fish Today has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival 2007. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, her third novel, was the first one she has written in English.

Xiaolu Guo Website
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A review by Paul Kincaid

This novella is a story of aftermath. The event that kick-starts the story happened some days before the book opens, we never see it, we never know for sure if it really happened. All we know are the consequences that build inexorably upon it. And even these have clearly been waiting for an appropriate occasion.

It is a story, also, that suggests significance where none may actually lie. For what sets the book in motion, the possible sighting of an unidentified flying object by an illiterate peasant woman in rural China, occurs on 11th September 2012. That the launchpad for a headlong rush into modernity should occur on the anniversary of the destruction of the most obvious symbols of modernity surely couldn't be anything but symbolic. And yet the date, noted only on official documents, means nothing to the players in this drama who prefer to think of the date as the twentieth day of the seventh moon, which is the luckiest day in the entire month. Though it hardly seems auspicious; as Kwok Yun, the witness to the UFO, says: "Today is supposed to be the luckiest day in the month, but actually everyone is bleeding, it's a day of blood." And this isn't an oblique reference to 9/11 but is meant literally, referring to her own menstruation and the wounded "alien" she finds at the site of the visitation. Even the lone American who becomes an incidental player in the events of that day makes no reference to the importance of the date. Such screaming symbolism, therefore, may lie only in the eyes of the beholder. More important to the characters, more truly symbolic, perhaps, is the fact that this was the day after National Wiping Out Illiteracy Day, another form of aftermath.

Not that there aren't symbols throughout the book. Kwok Yun, for instance, proudly wears a red t-shirt. It is the only item of clothing she has ever bought in a department store, which makes it special, and it was bought on a trip to see the Olympics, which makes it extra special. It carries characters in a foreign language that, of course, she cannot read. Eventually we learn that these characters say: "Is This The Future?" This is a question that bulks large throughout the novel, indeed it could be argued that this question is what the whole novel is about.

What the novel is not about, despite the title, is UFOs. On that fateful September day in 2012, Kwok Yun is riding her bike by a rice field in her village of Silver Hill when she hears a loud noise and sees what seems to be a metal plate flying above her head. Only one other person claims to have heard the noise, and that's a woman generally recognised to be mad. No-one else sees the metal plate. The shock causes Kwok Yun to fall off her bike, but when she recovers she finds a strange man lying in the field who has clearly been bitten by a snake. She takes the man to her home to care for him, from whence he soon disappears. Only then does she report the incident to the village chief, Chang Lee, who tells her that she has seen a UFO.

Whether she did or not is the subject of an official investigation that forms the first part of the book. The whole book is made up of transcriptions of interviews by official investigators (in the first part, by a disaffected agent from Beijing and a more sympathetic and more local agent from Hunan), interspersed with occasional written reports or letters. There is no narrative, no separate narrative voice, and hence no sense of a truth beyond the petty interests, irritations and prejudices of the various interviewees. Every investigation conducted in the book is partial and inconclusive, because no one, neither interviewer nor interviewee, has any real belief in the truth or interest in trying to get at it. Xiaolu Guo is a film maker and is clearly adept at dialogue, because the characters shine through in each of these interviews, but you quickly recognise that the various voices are not going to tell you anything about UFOs or aliens, but about their different attitudes towards the onrush of the future. And it is this that is most interesting about the book.

It is worth asking who the title is referring to when it says UFO in Her Eyes. Conventionally, we might think that this is Kwok Yun, who actually sees the metal plate. But I would suggest it is really Chang Lee, the ambitious village chief, who first identifies what Kwok Yun has seen as a UFO, and then parlays this into a scheme for the modernisation of her moribund fiefdom. Silver Hill is a village that is slowly running down; despite a brief flurry of official interest some thirty years before, investment has long since dried up and the aging population is living much as Chinese peasants have done for centuries. Ling Zhu the Butcher, for instance, delights in the title "Parasite Eradication Hero" that he was awarded in the early 60s for killing sparrows (a campaign that led directly to the Great Famine of 1962), but now he can't be bothered to keep flies off his meat. Most of the villagers live in run-down shacks and wrest a bare subsistence living from the land. Even the tea grower, popularly known as "Rich and Strong," declares that he is "poorer than any bastard rat in the tea fields."

The old men of the village (and there seem to be very few who aren't old) spend their time grumbling about their lot. Chang Lee sees the attention generated by the UFO sighting as a way of bringing Silver Hill into the modern world. Her chance comes when the alien rescued by Kwok Yun turns out to be not a space alien but a foreign alien, an American hiker who sends a cheque for $2,000 in gratitude. Since the Chinese government can't let American investment have dominance, this first bit of income is followed by lots more, and soon there are paved streets with modern flats, a supermarket with a massive car park (though no-one in the village has a car), factories are built on farm land, the rice field is made into a tennis court. It is the surface of the modern world, but without the substance.

And it comes at a cost. One small farmer drowns himself (cause for another inconclusive investigation). Kwok Yun learns to read and marries the teacher though he is clearly not the person she loves, and both are then moved out of the village to modern jobs that hardly seem to suit them. Even Chang Lee, in the aftermath of her triumph at Silver Hill, is moved elsewhere.

UFO in Her Eyes is a novel about the future, but it is not the future we have come to expect in science fiction. Xiaolu Guo recognises that the modern world we in the West have all been living through for the last fifty years or more is still the future for people in rural China. And it is no more welcome than the poverty of the past. That it is set three years hence is not to turn the book into science fiction, but to draw attention to the different perspectives on the future at play within the novel. It is a slim novella, easy to read and charming in its manner, but it packs a disturbing punch.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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