Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City
Dong Qizhang

Some time ago, I was listening to the Coode Street Podcast when their discussion turned to books in translation. Gary Wolfe mentioned in passing that Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City had been nominated for one or another award for its translation from Chinese. This was the first I had heard of the book and was surprised because Tor (I think) had just announced that it would release some other Chinese SF series, supposedly the first translation of any SF from the country. It turns out that Atlas is neither from China proper, nor is it really science fiction. Dong is from Hong Kong, which is technically part of China now but remains a special case, while is book owes much more to Borges, Calvino, and other magical realists. Also, this is a translation from Cantonese, not Mandarin, so while both are “Chinese,” they are very different animals.

What am I to make of it? This is a difficult book to parse. It can be taken as SF because the main character is an archaeologist from some unspecified point in the future, though the narrator’s identity isn’t really the point. There are also a couple of references to possible alien invasions and video games, but there are also references to World War II and geographic theory, so it’s hard to pin down a trope and say, “This is it! Genre clarity at last!” The book is structured like an academic text, complete with a theoretical framework and a threatened bibliography. The archaeologist purports to offer a possible narrative of the city of Hong Kong (“Victoria,” according to these scientists), as pieced together from a strange assortment of maps that researchers have dug up hither and yon. Underlying all is a completely different theme, about which we will speak later.

There are two kinds of people who will immediately take to Atlas: academics and lovers of Hong Kong. I admit to the former, but have no claim to the latter. I have read a few books about Hong Kong, looked at photos of Victoria Harbor, eaten Hong Kong’s food, and talked to people who hail from the city, but that’s the extent of my knowledge. (I’d like to visit some day, but who knows when that might happen.) Those who are neither of the above may have some trouble getting through this one. I will admit to being amused by the academic parts, especially the periodic silliness in the theory chapter, but am lost at sea once talk turns to local specifics. Many of the stories are interesting, some funny, some pointed, and I have no idea which ones he made up and which are historical. He does get in a well-deserved dig at the Japanese, who are apparently still trying to dodge war responsibility in Dong’s distant future.

Lurking in the background is a meditation on the nature of reconstruction, of the impossibility to reassemble the past from whatever remains we can find in the present. Victoria is never quite Hong Kong, despite the archaeologists’ best efforts. They can never really know what it was, just as we can never genuinely replicate our own pasts. The narrator realizes this of course, but presses ahead anyway, just as we have no choice but to live in the moment as we try to hang on as best we can to our memories. Dong may be suggesting that his solution to this melancholy problem is to maintain a stiff, but sardonic, upper lip about it all. He embraces the absurdities and uncertainties while bowing to the inevitability of time.

In the end though, this book isn’t about pedantic thematics, it’s about Hong Kong. I’m not sure I’d call it a love letter to the city as much as an in-joke to his fellows. I’m guessing that a third or so of the book went whooshing over my head, while long time residents chuckled heartily. This aspect makes it particularly difficult to distill into a recommendation, since the exact target audience is so small. Plenty of other people fall in the fringes of the appeal, so they will have to decide for themselves if this is something they want to read. A great many will find that even the short reading time required (it is under 200 pages) is far more than they want to give the book, likely throwing it across the room part way through The Grand Unified Theory of Maps. I liked it well enough, but it wasn’t a page-turner and it didn’t change my life. Still, I’ll probably someday be happy to say, “Oh yes, Dong’s Atlas. I’ve read that.”