Book Review: Cat Country [1932] by Lao She

Lao She, Cat Country [貓城記]. William A Lyell, trans. Penguin Books: Melbourne, 2013 [1932]. ISBN: 978-0-14-320812-9

A Chinese man crash-lands on Mars, finding himself in a country inhabited by Cat People. One of my colleagues and I have a long-standing mutual exchange of books whenever we see each other; I saw this on their shelf in their office in Leeds and insisted on borrowing it (thanks, Adam!).

A glimpse into the political situation in China in the 1930s through the eyes of a pessimist: Lao She despises both the ossified bureaucratic state and the hapless youthful revolutionaries; both groups are irredeemably corrupt and idiotic. References to the Chinese state, Karl Marx (“Uncle Karl”), and Communism (“Everybody Shareskyism”), and opium (“reverie leaves”) are thinly veiled. The text is interesting and enjoyable, if you enjoy fuel for misanthropy. The main thrust: everyone is irredeemably stupid to the point of deserving death, for what is the point of living such hopelessly selfish, vacuous lives?
I don’t like this translation and its gratuitous use of English/British idioms—I prefer when translators use idioms of the original language, explained in footnotes or endnotes. There are some poetic moments (“My brain was a murky ox rolling in the mud”), and I’m sure there are many more in the original Mandarin.

Finally, on gender: the book is hopelessly dated in this regard, with Lao She’s depiction of women/femininity as frivolous, pitiful, and spineless. The phrase “I’m not a misogynist, but…” actually appeared in the text. All women are either wives, concubines, or whores, defined entirely by their relationships to men; they have even less agency than the Cat Men, who at least have enough sense of self as to be selfish. This is a hard limit for me, and greatly reduced my appreciation of the text.

Science fiction is one of my favorite mediums for political satire. Cat Country is valuable primarily for its historical insight; the plot and characterization is not interesting if you deprive it of context. The lessons are not exclusively Chinese, offering a general critique of the tensions between conservatives and leftists. I recommend it on a historical basis, but for works of brilliant science fiction I might instead suggest Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, or anything by Ursula Le Guin.

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