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the Complete Review
the complete review - science fiction

Five Jade Disks

Chang Hsi-Kuo

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To purchase Five Jade Disks

Title: Five Jade Disks
Author: Chang Hsi-Kuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1984 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 146 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: in The City Trilogy - US
in The City Trilogy - UK
in The City Trilogy - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : odd fantasy, with fine mythic parts but weak science fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Five Jade Disks takes place on the Huhui planet -- and there almost entirely in Sunlon City. There have been interstellar wars -- and an "interstellar warship" sits in city centre at the beginning of the action -- suggesting great technological capabilities. Surprisingly, then, this is a very old-fashioned tale, with technology very much in the background and only occasionally employed. Myths that could have been lifted out of Chinese (and other) sagas of old play at least as significant a role, from wisdom beads to 'Sword-Cut Water' (that stops in its tracks when cut (and has other unusual properties as well)) -- and some of the technology ('Froghoppers' as means of transportation) seems more fairy-tale-like than futuristic.
       The novel begins with a preface describing the history of the legendary Bronze Statue of Sunlon City. The centre of this culture, it grew and grew, recast each time a new ruler took over. Unfortunately, the waste of resources necessary to recast the ever-large figure usually doomed the regime undertaking the project to failure, making it vulnerable to military defeat -- yet each new regime felt obligated to do it again, causing a back and forth that continued for ages. Eventually the statue was not recast with each change of government, but only added to. It continued to grow, reaching some 400 metres -- until, after the Fourth Interstellar War (which lasted 250 years), it was vaporized, leaving only "an empty patch of scorched earth in the city center." (This self-contained mini-story, which strikes the proper tone between legend and science fiction, is the best part of the novel.)
       When the story proper begins Huhui and its people are under the occupation of the Shan (whose own Golden Planet is the most powerful in the G Supergalaxy). The Shan control Sunlon city, but they do not completely dominate it: the occasional Shan soldier (and the occasional revolutionary) get killed, and at night the Shan don't even dare enter the nine bulu (city districts) surrounding the city centre.
       As the novel begins there is an uneasy peace which has held up for a few years now, though revolutionary agitation has continued against the occupying power all along. Things now come to a head as many of the Sunlon Death Commandos have taken a so-called loyalty pill which means they only have three days to live -- a brief amount of time in which they will either go into battle (to make their deaths worthwhile) or an antidote must be found. There's some confusion about why they took these pills, but clearly there is some interest among the Huhui people in fomenting revolution as soon as possible.
       Much of the novel centres around the search for the antidote. It turns out that it is hidden in a painting called Five Jade Disks -- a riddle of sorts which puzzles a number of the characters. The solutions to the riddle (yes, there's more than one) are, in turn, ingenious, clever, and finally an incredible letdown.
       Chang's greatest successes in this novel are in the details. Throughout symbols are used to express certain words and concepts (with phonetic spelling then provided parenthetically), and Chang has built up a rather large (if not always convincing) reality here. There are also footnotes that explain some of the terminology and details from Huhui culture and society -- including their marriage variations (not resticted to heterosexual monogamy, due to a large excess of males in the population).
       From six-limbed Serpent people to the various powerful groupings (the democratic Green Snake Brotherhood, the royalist Leopard Brotherhood, and the Bronze Statue Cult) Chang offers varied, interesting invention. It's only when it gets most fantastic -- exploding buttons ! convenient time-travel ! -- that the novel really creaks. Chang is least comfortable with the science fiction aspect of of his novel: typically, the culminating battle between the Huhui and the Shan involves, among other things, a distinctly archaic cavalry charge (with seven thousand horses, and scimitars and lances the weapons of choice). Spectacular it might be, but it feels anachronistic.
       There are a large number of characters that play significant roles in the story, including Miss Qi and her "kindermann" (household tutor) Ah-(chu), who are at the centre of much of the action, and the appropriately ominous Stranger in Black. Many of the characters -- like much of the plot -- are not fleshed out in sufficient detail: there's not much to them besides a name and a specific role they fulfil. There are some amusing asides -- such as a Serpent baby that adopts Ah-(chu) as its mother, much to his chagrin -- but these little scenes (or scene-fillers) feel odd given the immensity of what is taking place all around.
       The novel closes with a battle scene, with everyone "fighting to their last drop of blood for the glory of the Shan empire or for the rebirth of Sunlon city", and though the warfare isn't convincing the conflagration at least makes for an appropriate end (of at least this chapter in Huhui history).

       Five Jade Disks does have its charms, as much of what Chang invents is of some interest or appeal -- though one constantly wishes he had developed all of it (the characters, the myths, the technology, the conflicts) more extensively. He does so in the preface, with the story of the Bronze Statue, and that is a success, but only rarely does he devote such attention to the rest of his story.
       Much of the writing is also too cursory, and some of it is downright terrible (when the purple sun is at it's zenith it gets hot on the planet: "The Huhui planet was seared like sausage in a skillet"). Still, the continuous action and the historical, natural, and technological oddities of this planet do keep things moving along at a good pace -- it's never boring.
       A decent work, but a bit frustrating in that it could easily have been much better.

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The City Trilogy: Reviews: Chang Shi-Kuo: Other books by Chang Hsi-Kuo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Taiwanese author Chang Hsi-Kuo (also: Chang Shi-Kuo or Zhang Xiguo) was born in 1944 and is the director of the Center for Parallel, Distributed, and Intelligent Systems at the University of Pittsburgh

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