written by David Steffen
“Folding Beijing” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the novelette category this year. It was published by Uncanny Magazine, a magazine that debuted in 2015, and you can read it here in its entirety.
In the future, Beijing is not just one city, but three. The five million residents of First Space have the city for 24 hours at a time and have the most enviable prestigious jobs. The twenty-five million residents of Second Space have the city for 16 hours at a time and have jobs of middling prestige and power and pay. The fifty million residents of Third Space struggle to scrap out a living, and mostly spend their time sorting the recycling of the other two spaces. One of the three is active at a time, and during that time the residents of the other two sleep in a deep drugged sleep with their buildings folded up tightly underground and out of the way.
Lao Dao is a sorter of recyclables in Third Space, but he has been offered a rare and lucrative employment opportunity by a contact in Second Space to deliver a message to a person in First Space. Generally movement between the spaces is highly restricted, especially movement from the lower class spaces to the higher class spaces, but it is possible to avoid the drugged sleep of transition and to ride the folding pieces of the city to move from Third Space to First Space. Lao Dao explores the normally hidden upper class facets of the city, trying to figure out what choices are best in this foreign space where people don’t have to scrimp for money.
I thought the premise for this was really clever, and I got the impression that it was based in a good understanding of the economics of the class system that would support the city’s economy (I don’t have much knowledge of macroeconomics, but it sounded plausible to me at least). While such a mechanism would be cost-prohibitive and too dangerous for anyone to consider (even discounting the possibility of malfunction in self-collapsing buildings, consider the risks of not waking up from any kind of general anesthesia and applying that to tens of millions of citizens once every 2 days) I was willing to go with the flow for the sake of the interesting premise.
The setup of the story gave a good outsider’s perspective to explore the upper levels of the city’s classes. Even though Lao Dao is a resident of the city and so is familiar with much of its layout and structure and social system, he has never actually been to First Space before, and the level of technology and privilege in that space is as foreign to him as anything could be. I read this story with great interest from start to finish–a clever SF premise with a compelling human story at the center of it. Well told, well translated, well done.