The Big Idea: Michael Berry
What is described by translator Michael Berry as a sci-fi dystopian novel may actually be somewhat of a familiar tale to you. Come along in his Big Idea to see how Hospital, by Han Song, ended up being a perfect representation of his own life.
During a recent podcast interview about Hospital, the host asked “Let’s find out if it’s even possible to summarize the plot?” It isn’t an easy question to answer, even for me, the translator of the novel. Even after spending more than a year living and breathing every word of the book, I feel like I am still figuring it out.
Hospital starts off with a fairly straightforward, plot-driven narrative: Yang Wei goes on a business trip to C City, drinks a bottle of complementary mineral water in his hotel room, is almost immediately struck down with unbearable stomach pain, and after passing out for three days, is taken to a local hospital by several members of the hotel staff. And then things gradually start to get strange…flourishes of the uncanny begin to appear and the reader is quickly transported further and further away from the book’s early realist setting into a strange, dark, and increasingly unsettling universe.
As Yang Wei descends deeper into the hospital, undergoing a seemingly never-ending series of tests, examinations, and procedures to treat a mysterious unspoken ailment, the narrative itself also gradually begins to go off the tracks, taking us down a fictional rabbit hole that is uncompromisingly experimental. Gradually, we also realize that the hospital is not what we originally thought, but rather a massive all-encompassing structure that has taken over all of C City, the nation, and the world.
But, in some sense, summarizing the plot is the easy part. The real question is: what is the book about? What is the “big idea”? That proves to be an even more challenging question because I’m not sure if there is a single overriding big idea driving Hospital; instead, it is more like an explosion of ideas – a chronicle of human suffering, a meditation on the institutional violence that has become a part of our daily lives, a dystopian political allegory, an encyclopedic history of medicine, a think piece about the future of AI technology, a literary web spanning classical Chinese literature, western classics and Japanese anime, and a philosophical exploration of the nature of the universe. That’s a lot. And it barely scratches the surface.
In a recent blog post, the author, Han Song, described some of the main ideas in the book:
“This month the English translation of my novel Hospital is scheduled to be published in the United States. In this science fiction novel that was originally published in Chinese back in 2016, I wrote about an entire society that transformed into a massive hospital. In that world every citizen living in the Age of Medicine must uphold the common beliefs of their era: 1) Everyone is sick; 2) the sick are useless; 3) illness is untreatable; 4) all illnesses must be treated; 5) to be disease-free is itself an illness; 6) those suffering from serious illness are akin to be being free from illness. “
Riddled with absurdity and contradictions, the six tenets described by Han Song also speak to the contradictions and absurdity of our age. Hospital may very well be an “ideas book” but it is certainly not a place to look for answers. In fact, as many crazy plot twists and unbridled ideas there are that populate the Hospital, at times I think it is more about the experience of reading. To enter Han Song’s world is to let his unconventional ideas, wild imagery, impossible descriptions, and contradictory logic wash over you.
As unhinged from reality Hospital seems, as the book’s translator, I actually came to the book from two very concreate reference points. Roughly a decade ago, I was struck down with a debilitating auto-immune disorder, which took more than a year to diagnose. It was during that year that I lived in the world of the Hospital – endless appointments, tests, and procedures, months of waiting to get in to see “a specialist,” painful unnecessary surgical procedures, a bureaucratic maze of insurance company inquiries, applications, exemptions, co-pays, out-of-pocket charges, and, ultimately, no answers.
When I first read Han Song’s Hospital, even though the novel starts on Mars, for the first time, I read a work of fiction that fully captured the absurdity, cold violence, and impersonal brutality of what modern medicine can be. And then came COVID-19. Although Hospital was originally written in 2016 and the entire trilogy was completed in 2018, more than a year before the dawn of the COVID-era, Han Song’s words speak even more powerfully to the era in which we all now live.
As Hospital makes its English-language debut, China has just ended its Zero-Covid policy and infections throughout China are at an all-time high, not only has the first tenet of Hospital, “everyone is sick,” seemingly come to fruition, but so too, the entire nation, or world perhaps, has been transformed into a massive, all-encompassing hospital. It is against this backdrop, that Han Song’s nightmarish parable takes on new meaning, serving not only as a wild literary labyrinth, but also a prescient, if not predictive, book of our current Age of Medicine.