It opens, like so many science fiction stories do, with a mission to Mars. Han Song’s novel Hospital (translated by Michael Berry) begins in familiar territory, with a crewed ship traveling to explore the surface of Mars even as its crew engages in philosophical conversations. Soon enough, things take a turn for the bizarre, with the crew seeing things on the surface of Mars that have no business being there: a bird that looks an awful lot like a peacock, for instance, and then the ruins of a hospital. That’s when the vessel comes under attack from these impossible birds and is destroyed.
One might expect the beginning of the next chapter to pick up from there, revealing the aftereffect of this surreal and deadly visitation. Instead, the narrative shifts from third to first person, and the next sentence up is this:
“Whenever I went on business trips, I always tried to stay in the nicest hotels that my per diem allowed.”
This is the first indication that Hospital is not going to head in the direction that the reader expects. Imagine someone taking a passage from one of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse novels and juxtaposing it with a J.G. Ballard apocalyptic satire of modern life. That’s essentially the effect that takes place here, as narrator Yang Wei describes falling ill while on a work trip to C City and his arrival at the city’s hospital. That this illness arises from drinking a bottle of mineral water from his hotel is the first of many incongruous details that accompanies Yang Wei’s hospitalization; it won’t be the last.
While at the hospital, Yang Wei learns that many of the hospital’s staff are believers in a strange form of medicine known as “medical punk,” and that there’s a bizarre and authoritarian undercurrent to some of the medical dogma that the doctors treating Yang Wei espouse. Or, as one character phrases it, “Thanks to the hospital and our doctors, we are currently building a pure land; a fair, just, and healthy society.” And if you read these words with skepticism, that seems wholly intentional.
Whether or not the doctors at the hospital are, in fact, working in their patients’ best interests or are more interested in keeping them there for further treatment is a running question within Hospital. Gradually, Yang Wei begins to doubt the nature of his own reality and his reasons for being in C City. “I underwent gene reengineering, and even my memories underwent some process of reconfiguration,” he muses.
Eventually, our protagonist connects with a fellow patient, Bai Dai. She is focused on the nature of the hospital’s doctors, and whether or not they are capable of dying. A little over halfway through the novel, Yang Wei and Bai Dai are drawn together in an intimate moment; Yang Wei’s thoughts during this moment, however, are highly disturbing, and suggest that he has psychological depths that the narrative has yet to address. It’s a transgressive scene that, for me, called into question the therapeutic nature of the hospital even more than the surrealism that had prefaced it.
Things get weirder from there, as Yang Wei begins speaking with a being that seems to have taken up residence inside of his body. This is, as you might have guessed, a remarkably difficult novel to summarize; grand philosophical pronouncements, dream logic, and relentless paranoia all play a significant role in the novel.
Before Hospital reaches its conclusion, the novel takes yet another leap into the philosophical, with its final part including no small amount of heady conversations between Yang Wei and his possessor. (This is also the first book in a trilogy; I can genuinely say that I have no idea where Han Song plans to go from here.) There are few ways to describe Hospital. The shift from planetary exploration narratives to medical satire to musings on the nature of reality can be dizzying to take in, and the moments where Yang Wei shares his most unpleasant thoughts are highly unsettling.
It’s also worth mentioning that Hospital’s satire of medicine isn’t its only manifestation of social commentary. It contains critiques of both large-scale social transformations and the efforts by Western governments to gain an ideological foothold in China. One of the most memorable passages, in fact, finds Yang Wei pondering whether or not the United States exists, or whether it was “created to scare us.” It’s a maximalist novel, at least in the aesthetic sense—and it’s a work that ventures to some truly unexpected places.
Hospital is published by Amazon Crossing.
Read an excerpt here.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).