Time Dilation - WFH?
Chen Qiufan’s short story “The Fish of Lijiang” is about a burned-out employee who travels to a holiday town where the experience of time is artificially engineered.
Parenthesis: Chen has become known for his use of AI-generated content in his stories. His story, "State of Trance" from a 2020 short story collection, used automatically generated paragraphs based on his own writing. That story won him a literary prize in a contest moderated by an AI judge, over Nobel laureate Mo Yan.
His latest book can now be pre-ordered:
Excerpts from “The Fish of Lijiang”:
It’s the fault of that damned mandatory physical exam. On the last page of the report were the words: PNFD II (Psychogenic Neural-Functional Disorder II). Translated into words normal people can understand, they say that I’m messed up and I must take two weeks off to rehabilitate.
My face flushed, I asked my boss whether I could be exempted. I felt the stares of everyone in the office burning into the back of my neck. Schadenfreude. They were delighted that the “boss’s pet” was shown to be human after all, weak in the head, collapsing under the stress.
I shuddered. That’s office politics for you.
The boss spoke slowly, methodically: “You think I want this? I have to pay for your mandatory vacation! People working at other companies can’t even get rehab even if they need it. But the new labor law requires it of us. Our company is a proper, globalized business; we have to set an example . . . Anyway, if you get worse, your disease will turn into neurosyphilis and infect the rest of us. Better that you leave now, yes?”
Ashamed, I left the boss’s office and cleaned out my desk. I ignored the stares. Keep on looking, you neurosyphilitic assholes.
The ancient city has no computers and no TV. But some of the inhabitants have decided to rent out the space on their foreheads and chests. Tiny LCDs are embedded into their skin, showing all kinds of ads, twenty-four hours a day. Like I said, this is no longer the Lijiang I knew.
After dinner, we go to a bar. She’s disappointed by the decline in the level of service at Lijiang. “What happened to all the fun people who used to run this place?”
From one of the waiters we find out that the place is now owned by Lijiang Industries (stock code # 203845), backed by several wealthy conglomerates. The local owners she knew sold because they either could no longer afford to keep the place running or could not afford a new license. Everything is so much more expensive now. But the stock of Lijiang Industries is doing very well.
I see an old man sitting in a corner with a falcon. The falcon and the man are both full of energy. I go up to them with my camera.
“No pictures!” the old man shouts.
“Five yuan! One dollar!” the falcon shouts in a mixture of Sichuan-accented Mandarin and English.
Fuck! They’re both robots. The city has nothing authentic any more. I turn around angrily.
“To hear why the sky of Lijiang is so blue, press 1. To hear the Legend of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, press 2. . . . ”
Enough. I press “1.”
“Modern Lijiang relies on condensation control and scatter index standardization. The technology is able to maintain sunny days with probability above 95.426%. Through micro-adjustments to the atmospheric particle content, it is able to maintain the hue of the sky between Pantone2975c and 3035c. The system is designed by . . . ”
She tells me that they are receiving “time sense dilation therapy.” She calls them “the living dead.”
The therapy began some twenty years ago. Back then, scientists discovered that by controlling the biological clock of an organism, it was possible to reduce the production of free radicals and slow down aging. But the decay of the mind and its eventual death could not be reversed or halted.
Someone made another discovery: the aging of the mind was intimately connected with the sense of the passage of time. By manipulating certain receptors in the pineal gland, it was possible to slow down one’s sense of time, to dilate it. The body of a person receiving time sense dilation therapy remains in the normal stream of time, but his mind experiences time a hundred, a thousand times slower than the rest of us.
“But what does this have to do with you?” I ask.
“You know that women who live together synchronize their biological rhythms, like menstrual cycles?”
“It’s the same thing with us nurses who care for these living dead, day in, day out. Once a year, I have to come to Lijiang to rehabilitate, to remove the effects time dilation has on my body.”
My rehabilitation over, I’m on my return flight with my not-so-healthy mind and not-so-happy body. The airplane hasn’t taken off yet but the cabin is already filled with snores.
I guess some people at least have been fully rehabilitated.
Suddenly the idea of returning to that concrete jungle to struggle against my fellow time-compressors disgusts me.
The plane takes off. Cities, roads, mountains, rivers—everything recedes into a small chessboard composed of parti-colored squares. In every square, time flows faster or slower. The people below throng like a nest of ants controlled by an invisible hand, divide into a few groups, are stuffed into the different squares: time flies past the laborer, the poor, the “third world”; time crawls for the rich, the idle, the “developed world”; time stays still for those in charge, the idols, the gods . . .
PS: More about the hyperreal life of Chen Quifan:
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