In some dialect of southern China, balin means a fish with scales. It is also a nickname for a mysterious creature in Chen Qiufan’s story. As one of the most prominent young science fiction writers (A review of his story Coming of Light, written by Regina Wang Kanyu, can be found here), Chen keeps an eye on the development of the latest technologies and comes up with innovative ideas. In Balin, he has explored the possibilities of using VR (Virtual Reality) as a means to study neuroscience topics. However, the true aim of his stories is always human nature, how science and technology affects human beings and, on a more fundamental level, how we humans react to the world around us.
The protagonist lived in a small town in southern China. On his thirteenth birthday, he received a strange gift from his father, who was a local business man. It was a humanoid creature captured from the islands of the South China Sea, with ebony skins and a special ability to imitate the exact movements of other people. The creature had the resemblance of a boy but could not talk, or at least not in an intelligible way. The protagonist named him Balin because he smelt of fish and brine.
By hypothesizing the scientific properties of Balin’s neural system, the author in fact started a line of inquiries into some uncomfortable realities pertaining to the nature of humanity. As Mr. Lu, a character in the story, guessed, overactive mirror neurons might give Balin the ability to imitate movements with perfect precision, but it also led to an excess of empathy, which made the poor creature fall victim to viciousness and violence.
The story twines the mystery of Balin with the conflicts between the protagonist and his father, who had planned out everything for his son up through the age of forty-five. But that was not what his son wanted. They fought over the issue and only on the condition that the protagonist would come back to his home town, was he allowed to attend a college in Beijing.
The reader might wonder if the son and the father would come to understand each other at the end. But the true question here is, how much capacity for empathy we humans can have for each other – perhaps not as much as we would like to think.
According to Chen Qiufan, the small town where the story happened is modeled on those backwater communities near his own hometown in southern China. Some of the characters are based on people he knew from his time in his hometown. The father represents old-fashioned traditionalists, who value orderliness and heritage over everything else. The son is a typical young man seeking the value of his own life. Naturally, they tend to disagree with each other. But the problem is, can they identify and understand the other’s feelings and motives? That brings in the mystic creature, Balin, who seems to be able to metaphorically embrace everyone and everything in the universe. Such idealization, such impossible existence, the protagonist was intrigued. But even the scientific methodologies failed to reveal the cause of the phenomenon, and we were probably left to believe that the lack of capacity for empathy is in our blood.
In Philip K. Dick’s classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, it was claimed that empathy for living things was a feat of humanity, of civilized beings. In order to prove your humanity, you had to maintain a pet, a target to demonstrate your ability to exercise empathy. However, in this story, although the protagonist did have a pet, it seemed that being empathic was not in his nature, or so he had thought. On the other hand, ironically, the pet, Balin, had actually shown an extraordinary quality in this regard due to the excessive mirror neurons.
Now, while in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Rick Deckard finally eliminated his empathy for androids and completed his bounty hunting mission, in Balin, Chen Qiufan gave us something else to chew upon. What would happen between the father and the son? What would Balin become to the protagonist? But most importantly, do we have enough capacity for empathy to call ourselves civilized beings? The answer might not be obvious, but that is what the author wants us to think over.
[Balin, translated by Ken Liu, is published in Issue 115, April 2016, Clarkesworld ]