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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Han Song

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To purchase Hospital

Title: Hospital
Author: Han Song
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 398 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Hospital - US
Hospital - UK
Hospital - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Chinese title: 医院
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Michael Berry

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative metaphysical (and physical) journey-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 30/9/2022 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Song's English-language debut delivers a long, twisted descent into madness and despair. (...) Though the amount of technical medical terminology may overwhelm casual readers, this dystopian tale skillfully balances delusion, disillusionment, and disdain. Readers are in for a dark, difficult trip down the rabbit hole." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hospital -- the first volume of a trilogy -- begins with a Prologue that, at least in its opening, suggests some fairly standard science fiction fare will follow, with a spaceship, the SS Mahamayuri traveling to Mars. The old world order had collapsed on Earth after another world war, with Buddhism having become: "the dominating belief system for a new era of humankind". Among the discoveries of this new time: "there are Buddhas all over the universe", and while he's not expected to make a return trip to Earth -- once was enough -- mankind has sent out ships and probes to possibly seek him out elsewhere, with Mars a promising candidate.
       Arriving on Mars, the crew of the SS Mahamayuri does find birdlike lifeforms there -- and the remnants of a huge hospital complex, as also:

     Before and after this incident, spacecraft traveling the solar system discovered the ruins of similar hospital-like structure, including red crosses, on Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, all of the planets' moons, and even some asteroids.
     Someone or something had traveled to these worlds and built hospitals. But when ? And why ?
       The novel proper then doesn't immediately address these questions, but it does soon focus on a terrestrial hospital, in times closer to our own. The story is narrated by forty-year-old Yang Wei, who works as a government functionary in the capital, writing reports and speeches, and also has a side-gig as a songwriter. He was hired by Corporation B to compose a corporate theme song for them, and combines a business trip to C City with that task.
       Almost immediately, he falls ill after drinking some mineral water, and he is brought to the city's enormous Central Hospital. He has help navigating the bureaucracy and begins undergoing a battery of tests, but mostly remains in the dark about everything, from his own condition to the functioning of the hospital. Already early on he's put in his place:
     I started to grow increasingly anxious. "What exactly is wrong with me ?"
     "What's wrong with you ?" the surgeon asked. "That's not something the patient needs to know. Your illness is the hospital's business." He couldn't have been more to the point.
       The story thus begins as a patient's nightmare-odyssey, caught up in the modern medical complex, its functions and workings remaining impenetrable to the patient. Yang is kept in the dark -- and the darkness around him turns out to be more far-reaching, indeed all-consuming, than he could have initially imagined.
       The hospital is a world unto itself, and Yang is expected to place his full trust in it and have no doubts or reservations about what is going on: "You must get this wishy-washy thinking out of your head and fully commit", he is told. Whether he wants to or not, he soon finds: "I was part of the hospital, one of its cells. I was bacteria growing on the hospital's skin".
       It is the dawning of the 'Age of Medicine', where everything is to revolve around healtcare, a Clinical-Academic-Industrial Complex:
Cities will transform into comprehensive superhospitals. Mayors will be hospital presidents, and their primary concern will be to ensure the health of every resident.
       Indeed, it goes so far as: "To say that the hospital is the cornerstone of the nation would not be as accurate as saying that it is on its way to replacing the nation".
       The ideal is one of "endless treatment" - as with Bai Dai, whom Yang befriends in the hospital: she had already been a patient and treated in utero, and has spent her entire life -- twenty-five years so far -- in the sick ward. Among the oddities she notices, and then explores with Yang, is that despite all the death and disease around them, they are unable to find an instance of a doctor dying .....
       Even as he is told: "you need to submit to the hospital", Yang can't get fully on board -- not least because he remains baffled by what the hospital (and his situation -- "But all I did was drink a bottle of mineral water !") are. Repeatedly, he questions himself as well, wondering whether he hasn't been here before, or even, for example, whether he and all the hospital patients aren't simply digital images. Other patients see the hospital differently -- "The hospital is the place where all my dreams can finally come true !" -- but for Yang it remains a nightmare from which he can't wake.
       Hospital is presented in three sections; the first two are 'Illness' and 'Treatment', while the third -- still a huge chunk of the novel -- is a 'Postscript: Surgery'. It is in this final section that the story shifts from Kafkaesque hospital tale to something bigger (and stranger) -- though the foundations have long been laid out. So also here an explanation for Yang's intense stomach-pain emerges .....
       In many ways, the fundamentals remain the same, only the scale really changes: as is explained to Tang: "Not only is every person sick, but so is the universe". Indeed: "Disease is the default setting for everything, the normal state of things" (or, as it's then put for even greater emphasis: "No one escapes the law: Disease is the Default Setting for Everything"). With it also comes the (perhaps less than completely helpful) diagnosis Yang gets: "The cosmic malady is also your malady".
       Much of the Postscript involves a large-scale attempted escape from the hospital, which Yang is also part of. He is also shown a world beyond -- yet it's also all of a piece. As he notes along that way:
     I realized just how complicated the situation really was. Everything was now on a completely different level.
       Indeed, the novel shifts evermore from the physical to the metaphysical, and the relevance of the early mention, in the Prologue, of Buddhism comes into greater and greater focus.
       The ending leaves readers (and Yang) hanging some -- Hospital is the first in a trilogy ... -- but it's a wild and compelling ride, and Han is pointing things in an interesting direction. The novel's opening sentence stated -- or warned -- : "The meaning of travel lies not in the journey but in the destination", and by the close of the novel that destination is still far from clear, but Han is playing -- very well -- with some big ideas, and there is a lot of potential here. If the journey through Hospital hasn't been the point, it's still been an interesting one -- though also quite long and drawn-out, a (nearly all-)consuming vision of disease, suffering, and pain.
       (Interesting ancillary issues that crop up along the way include the role of 'Western' medicine in China (where C City is located), and Western imperial-/colonial-ism (in all its forms) in general, with the Central Hospital clearly modeled on the Rockefeller Foundation-funded Peking Union Medical College Hospital that revolutionized medical education and treatment in China in the early twentieth century. So also, as Bai Dai notes: "Illness is, after all, the fashion of the day. It symbolizes our everlasting struggle against the West".)
       Hospital isn't exactly slow, but it is drawn-out and deliberate, the fairly short chapters (there are eighty-seven, across just short of four hundred pages) sufficiently episodic to give it the necessary (if still often quite labored) momentum. The expressive chapter headings help -- 'Death Is The End, But The End Is Only The Beginning', or 'How Do You Know That Your Brain Isn't There Simply To Produce Shit' -- but Hospital is far less about action than ideas, and some patience is required as Han slowly builds them up.
       Hospital is a creative and thought-provoking work of fiction, and well worth engaging with; it will be interesting to see where Han takes this.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2023

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Hospital: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Han Song (韩松) was born in 1965.

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© 2023 the complete review

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