“I make technical drawings based on precision measurements,” said Mr. Jin. “I am presented with an item, measure it, prepare technical drawings, and then hand them over for fabrication.”

Colonel Li nodded. “Precision measurements of items of foreign manufacture, is that right?”

Mr. Jin bristled slightly. “Yes, but not whole products. My company makes cheap replacement parts. Battery doors, hinges, plastic cases. Things Americans can use to repair their items but that they cannot purchase due to their system’s inefficiency. We fill a need.”

“Of course, of course,” said Colonel Li. “I did not mean to suggest you were behaving inappropriately. Your factory found a need and filled it very skillfully, and your performance reviews have been…stellar.”

“I take pride in my work, Colonel Li.”

“Which is why I am here,” said Li. “But first, please understand that what I am about to tell you is a state secret. Discussing it with others, even your family, can only result in the strictest penalties.”

“I am a loyal citizen,” Mr. Jin said. “Though I wonder what use the state could have for one such as me, beyond my taxes.”

“You come highly recommended,” the colonel said. “And most importantly, your brother is a Party member. The local party secretary, in fact. You have the precise combination of skill, anonymity, and political reliability that we are looking for.”

“To do what, exactly?”

Li leaned forward. “To repair an American stealth bomber, of course.

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You’s think that, given a title like the one above, that I’d be ranting against Hollywood’s lack of innovation, its crass celebrity culture, its smug sense of self-satisfaction, or any one of the numerous sins the industry has committed in the 100 years of its existence.

You’d be wrong. I come before you today to rant about something very different: Hollywood’s double standard when it comes to censorship and activism.

One of the major points that industry professionals have emphasized is the ability of their movies to make social points and advance worthy causes, addressing racism, classism, other -isms, and oppression at home and abroad. And it’s true that movies have done that…up to a point. But it’s only recently that the line in the sand has become clear.

Remember in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviets were the go-to bad guys? Films weren’t afraid to point out the brutal nature and horrific human rights abuses committed by the communists. And yet, in films today, you never see the few contemporary communist regimes–with one exception as we shall see–portrayed as the rights-abusing boogeymen that they often are. Why is that?

The answer is simple: money. The old Soviet bloc, and other states that espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a future utopia that would never be (as opposed to the fascists, who espoused similar versions of nastiness in favor of a past utopia that never was)…they never screened American films, or did so only rarely. There was no money to be lost by pointing out horrific crimes, because there was no chance of Hollywood movies unspooling officially behind the iron curtain.

That’s all changed. In a move that can only be described as Machiavellian brilliance, nasty regimes have opened up their markets to Hollywood films with strict central control. You can make your millions from a movie-hungry foreign audience…but only if the powers-that-be say so. This creates a powerful economic incentive not to piss off a given country, like China, by calling attention to any social points or worthy causes. Thus instead you have craven sucking up to the selfsame governments where once there might have been criticism, like the scenes added to Iron Man 3 or the evil, inept Americans as a contrast to the heroic, competent Chinese government in Transfourmers: The One With Swords and Dinosaurs.

Perhaps a worse example has just been dumped on our laps, though: The Interview. For a long time, North Korea has been one of the few acceptable movie bogeymen, with its abuses and excesses and brutality always on glittering display, because the Hermit Kingdom, like the Soviets of old, allowed no American movies outside of the Kim family’s private theater and there was therefore no chance of alienating a revenue-paying audience. Only the Nazis, discredited and repudiated and dead to history, were more reliable villains throughout the 2000s and 2010s–hell, several movies and video games (like the remake of Red Dawn and the first-person shooters Homefront) were reworked at a late date to swap out Chinese villains for North Korean ones in defiance of all logic. North Korea was “safe.”

But that’s all changed. The Interview apparently touched a deep nerve with the North Koreans, portraying as it does the attempted assassination of King Jong-Un. So the Koreans retained a group of hackers to sabotage Sony, the producer and distributor of the film. Releasing internal documents, emails, and even a few completed films…all this hurt the filmmakers where it hurt most, in the wallet. Realizing that they were in the same position to lose money through hackery, theater chains have begun pulling the movie entirely. They’re billing it a “safety” issue, but it’s really a monetary one–North Korea has proven, at least for now, its ability to cost Hollywood money, and no one wants to pay that price for their principles.

So, in an even more craven move than crudely editing Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing into Iron Man 3 to suck up to China, the fear of revenue loss has essentially allowed the world’s most brutal dictator veto power to censor media critical of him. People are dying under jackboots in the Hermit Kingdom as they have been since 1945, but rather than let even a relatively mild “Springtime for Kim Jong-Un” satire unspool safely, Hollywood would prefer to quietly go back to making money.

I’m sorry. That’s craven, it’s crass, and it sets a dreadful precedent for everyone who doesn’t like their portrayal in free media: if you cost people enough money either by denying them revenue or hacking it away, they’ll meekly let you go about your business. That, in my mind, is the biggest reason to seek out and see The Interview if you can find anyone brave enough to distribute it: to send the message to those selfsame craven, crass bean counters that there are bigger things at stake than their damn bottom line. A thousand reboots, a thousand thousand remakes, a thousand thousand thousand vanilla rom-coms before handing the veto stamp to those who deserve the harshest, glitziest spotlight the industry has shone upon them.

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Wey Lee could speak perfect Mandarin and perfect English; he had Anglicized the spelling of his name but refused to take on a appellation more palatable to flabby Western tongues, as had many of the Josephs and Sallys and such that Zhang Min had met on the campus. Compared to the twinkies that seemed to overrun the campus, the young man was a fresh breath of sharp fall air.

She had made turning pages and scanning them for Dr. Li such an automatic process that when Wey dropped by (as he often did, seemingly living in the library) she was able to engage him in bright and bubbly Mandarin even as she digitized books written by Americans on Tiananmen Square. Most of all, Zhang Min appreciated Wey’s sense of decorum: he was careful to meet her in a crowded place and in such a way (when she had her turn at the scanning terminal) that no one would suspect them of an illicit liaison.

They spoke of many things, of their shared memories of hot South China summers, of the terrible slop that passed for Chinese food in Hopewell, of how full of themselves the local Cantonese speakers seemed to be in comparison to the down-to-earth Mandarin speakers like themselves, and a shared passion for the admittedly cheesy soap operas and patriotic dance displays on mainland television. It made the tedium of scanning more bearable, and the ominous glares of that suspicious librarian less heart-pounding.

But Dr. Lin’s words could not be misinterpreted: “Do not think for a moment that you are here on a pleasure trip. Do not allow yourself to be distracted, as distraction leads to poor quality scans and lack of useful patriotic effort. Remember: if you cannot do as you are asked, there are ten girls in line to replace you.”

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Zhang Min’s bag groaned with books on American history, the fall of the Soviet Union, and declassified State Department documents. The Southern Michigan University library had a robust collection in those areas to support its School of Security and Intelligence Studies, and it fell to Zhang and her roommates to retrieve the books and scan their contents using the public high-resolution scanners throughout campus. At any given time, a complex rotation schedule meant that one girl was scanning, another retrieving, and another in class.

The girls shared a single unit in the Hopewell student ghetto; the lease was in the name of their live-in handler, Dr. Li Xiu Ying. Dr. Li was ostensibly a junior faculty member in the Southern Michigan University Department of Physics, but her scholarship was quietly provided for her from back home; she was a member of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department. The girls were there at her pleasure, their expenses paid for out of her purse, and she ran a tight ship by minimizing frivolous socializing and keeping a sharp watch on her girls.

Dr. Li’s main interest wasn’t classified information; far from it, in fact. Classified information was too easy to trace, too hard to acquire. An entirely separate branch of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department handled that, and they were welcome to it. No, Dr. Li’s raison d’etre was qingbao, information that was publicly and freely available. “People are cheap,” she was fond of saying, “and information is expensive.”

Zhang Min had once heard another girl ask Dr. Li why they were bothering to acquire such “useless” information. Li, as was her wont, had responded with a backhand and a lecture. “Every piece of information we acquire is a bullet in the chamber,” Li had snapped, “making our nation stronger. Only a fool lets others take stones from their property, for over time those same stones can be used to build a fortress against them.”

What Li had meant, as near as Zhang Min could tell, was that the information they were sending back by the terabyte was gone over by professionals, indexed and categorized. Anything of value was added to the PLA database, where it could be useful for everything from rooting out traitors at home to predicting enemy moves in the event of a conflict. One could do a lot worse, she supposed, than to have the same books on one’s shelf as one’s enemies.

And if, as in Li’s diatribe to the weeping girl on the floor, the information had been carelessly put out for the taking by the foolish Americans…well, wasn’t it the duty of every patriot to gather those stones up that they might be turned into fortresses?

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“You know I am not Japanese, yes?” Zhang Wei had said in his interview with The Sushi Bowl, the sashimi place in the student union.

“We’re not allowed to hire based on students’ ethnic backgrounds,” the interviewer had assured him. “Plus, there aren’t enough Japanese students on campus even if we did.

So Wei found himself working the lunch rush behind The Sushi Bowl’s counter with three other students from China, smiling and nodding politely whenever he was complimented on “his” cuisine (in reality trucked in fresh from a distributor three times a day). It didn’t do wonders for Wei’s unease; in addition to facing challenges with his grasp of English every day, he was feeling very uneasy at being in an engineering class with no American students, and being one of sixteen Zhang Weis in the program (it being the mainland Chinese equivalent of “John Smith”).

He wasn’t sure if, as his grandmother had warned him, he was catching “American narcissism” like it was a disease, or if his feelings were a natural reaction to the routine absurdities that confronted him every day.

All he knew was that something had to change, or something was going to give.

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This is Ming Mu Sung for Ming and Sons Lucky Happy Dragon No. 777 Chi Mechanics, and I’m here to ask you a question. Is your life energy flowing properly? Have you consulted with geomancers and chigong instructors to maximize the flow of mystical life energy through your body and environment yet still lack harmony? Have acupuncturists jamming stainless steel needles into your body somehow failed to stop your aches and pains?

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The hopper disgorged another ream of paper onto Sandra’s desk. “Paper” was perhaps a misnomer–it was really more of a polymer stack that communicated with her desktop–but that’s what it felt like, what it was designed to feel like, and that’s what she called it. Readers had the option of using polypaper or their desktops and almost all of them chose the polypaper, as editing was so much easier stylus in hand.

She picked up the new contestant and leafed through it. Generated by Lucky 777 Jade Emperor Press Algorithms in Guangzhou, the book told the story of a lonely and sexually repressed middle school teacher who was seduced by a handsome Manananggalan (a Malaysian vampire-sorcerer that manifested as a disembodied floating head when it fed). The overall concept was sound enough to sell; Sandra delicately made a few changes right off the bat, though.

The heroine’s name, Arisser, was clearly the product of a bad algorithm; it was changed to Alyssa. The story, ostensibly set in North America, opened with a description of Paris; a few tweaks here and there changed it to Quebec. All instances of the word “toilet” had been replaced by “teliot,” probably another consequence of a wonky text generation algorithm. Similarly, “restroom” had received the all-too-literal translation “urine district” from Lucky 777’s novel generation software. Sandra chuckled softly at that one and wrote it down to share with the other readers at lunchtime.

That done, she scanned the novel for the usual suspects, errors common to all novels generated using cheap and market-leading but imprecise Chinese algorithms (many programmed by wage slaves with virtually no English aside from machine translation and phrasebooks). A find-all to replace “water buffalo” with “horse,” for example (who wanted to read that Allison and her Manananggalan lover “worked like water buffaloes?”). There was still plenty of work to be done by going painstakingly through the thing, adding “the” and correcting word-order problems and egregious misspellings and mistranslations, but it was a good start.

It sometimes wore on Sandra a little bit that she, along with everyone else employed by Writers’ Creative Services, was only employed to proofread and copy-edit, not to write. But Hollister upstairs, and the market forces he personified, had spoken: it was cheaper to have writing generators in China automatically generate books and have native English speakers clean them up. After all, if you fed enough market data, psychological studies, and multi-platinum texts into a computer, it would cough up bestselling drek at least as well as any human.

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“GesteCo has been…diversifying. They’ve got some interesting trees at their experimental facility in Xinjiang.”

“Trees? You pulled this whole Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger thing for trees? Look: GesteCo is the international leader in artificial gestation, test tube babies, and designer kids for the rich and famous. If you can’t give me something juicy along those lines, there’s no point in talking.”

“Trees can be interesting, Mr. Whitacre. For instance, have you seen the GesteCo tree that’s been making the rounds at bioengineering conferences? They say it can produce human stem cells.”

“It’s easier just to collect those from newborns.”

“You’re not listening, Mr. Whitacre. Inside the trees: you must look inside! It is both a wonder and a horror that will, I think, be well worth your time.”

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“As with all things, the problem comes down to chi,” said Dr. Guthrie-Xue.

“Don’t you mean qi?” said Marietta. “I think that’s how you’re supposed to say it.”

“No, I mean chi,” Guthrie-Xue said, eyes narrowed. “Don’t interrupt.”

Marietta thought of a blistering response but thought better of it. She sat fiddling with her teacup for a moment waiting for the good doctor to continue.

“Based on your description, I’m 99% sure what’s happened,” Guthrie-Xue said after that uncomfortable silence. “They call the process you’ve undergone chi deshielding–literally 破气盾 or ‘broken chi shield.'”

“So what does that mean? I need to hire a geomancer, get some feng shui up in my life? Restore the flow of positive energy?” Marietta was anxious to show her cultural sensitivity even if it stemmed from a single Chinese Culture 107 class and the forewords to the half-dozen holistic cookbooks floating around her kitchen.

“You wish. This insidious attack–which can only be performed by a master in perfect tune with their own acquired and innate chi as well as that of the world–means that you can no longer accrue or process positive chi. Lactose intolerance would be a decent metaphor. Tell me, did anything inauspicious happen on your way here today?”

Marietta nervously scratched the back of her hand. “Well, there was a black cat. And that mirror in the stall on 48th. I had to walk under a ladder to come down here because they’re painting the shop upstairs. And I was almost hit by a cab and lost my metro pass, which I know aren’t traditionally inauspicious but they damn well ought to be.”

“See the dark spots around the eyes, the shape of the ears and nose? It’s kind of panda-like.” Jenny gestured into the cage as she spoke. That’s why they’re called panda bats, or ‘xióng māo bianfu.'”

“I guess so,” Sam said, “if you’re the kind of person that sees pandas in their rice pudding.”

“They also have a ‘sixth finger’–really an elongated wrist bone–that giant pandas and red pandas have,” Jenny said.

Sam shrugged. “So that’s why it’s endangered? Because it looks like a panda?”

“No, it’s mostly habitat destruction and harvesting for traditional medicine. Bats are thought to treat epilepsy and extend life, in some circles, and the whiter the bat, the older it is and the longer it will let you live.”

“Well, people also used to think that feeding a mouse oil or salt would make it turn into a bat, and that’s where they came from. You’d think that both of them would be equally debunked.”