What Futures


by Su-Yee Lin

Su-Yee Lin is a Chinese-American writer from New York. Her work has been published at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Interfictions, The Offing, Okey-Panky, and elsewhere.



If you are in Shanghai, then there is the kite-flying of old men in the mornings who trail their fantastical birds and beasts to write secret messages in the sky. They are communicating with alien civilizations, they are asking for release. From them or from us, you cannot tell.

You come from another country whose name you no longer speak, a long journey with stops in other countries along the way. You’ve only been here a few months; you haven’t had a chance to miss your home country yet but maybe you never will.

In Shanghai, there are fruits from the north, little yellow huskcherries sold for exorbitant prices by the men carrying them and tiny wild persimmons in bamboo baskets. Sometimes they are sweet. Sometimes they have too many seeds.

When you walk down the street, a drone flies overhead. Mechanical cleaners sweep the streets. There are remnants of garbage from the night before, streaking the sidewalk yellow. You are still not used to this. You will never be used to this. But this is the way things work now.

Your job, one that you are lucky to have, is the design of new buildings in Pudong. In the morning, a suit and tie, shoes reflecting light. During the day, endless rounds of coffee brought to you as you draw unceasingly, pen held always to paper. In the evening, dinner and drinks with your new colleagues because G, your boss, says so. It’s the way to fit in, he tells you, and that’s what makes or breaks you here. Fitting in.

Funny how it works the same way everywhere. You thought you’d left it behind, could function alone and independent, but it’s here too, in the way you speak, in the words you use—the things that mark you as different. There are rituals you don’t know but at least here, you can learn them, and once you learn them, it’ll be easy. Where you were before, you knew the rituals but you weren’t accepted anyway.

The others drink together every night, pretty much. All young, all single, but this company is a relatively new one, and rapidly growing. There is so much construction to be done. So much to take apart and build anew. Drones fly past your window on the fifth floor to then deliver packages to the ground floor. You leave your blueprints smudged and have to redraw them. The meetings you go to all say the same thing: bigger, taller, better. This is the end of the twenty-first century and the world waits for no one.

Things go well. You work harder and harder but there’s an exhilaration to it. Coffee props you up. Your colleagues are funny, are friendly, don’t notice that you haven’t always been one of them. You get used to how quickly things happen here—how a building you worked on starts construction in less than a year. You watch it rise and your hands tap out their own rhythm on your desk.

Your girlfriend’s name is Little Mirror and you are amazed that here, you can have a girlfriend. You can have an apartment in a high-rise by the park and a job that isn’t menial, that you are paid to do. Here, you are a man and not a thing.

Then, one day, the accident. The hospital with the whitewash on the walls peeling in the corners. The doctors open you up and they see that things aren’t how they should be. There are organic and inorganic materials, wires snaking into flesh. They call in your boss, G. G knows it all already but he is still surprised, as anyone would be to see their employee’s internal workings, regardless of whether or not they are a cyborg. In Shanghai, there aren’t so many of you, unlike the country where you come from where you are all a dime a dozen and treated so—common and beneath notice, without rights. There is only one specialist in Shanghai who can attempt to fix you, G tells you, or you can fly back to the country you came from.

The specialist in Shanghai is inexperienced and your recovery is no sure thing. But you cannot face the thought of leaving — it was hard enough to come here and you’re unsure if you will be allowed back out. The country where you came from has never been your country even if it believes that you belong to it. You say yes to the Shanghai specialist.

The specialist is eager and young; called in to the hospital, he only has eyes for you but speaks only to the doctors around. With him, you are an it. A cold dread washes through you as he looks at the x-rays and talks about redirecting wires. Your mind is kept clouded, your body partially broken but you know better than to trust a man like this. He will only be disappointed if you die and only because he will not be allowed to experiment with your body. You ask for G and when G comes, you say, I’ll go back but let me say goodbye.

The morning you are to leave, you’re brought down to the Bund, early enough that there are only a few sweepers around. They aren’t human so they pay you no mind. A man jogs past but headphones are in his ears and his eyes are focused straight ahead. The waves in the river make no sound. The lights of Pudong are off, the skyscrapers just a shadow in front of the slowly brightening sky. An old man comes up the stairs, a bucket and a large calligraphy brush like a mop in hand. He says good morning to you. He dips his calligraphy brush in water and begins.

You think about the choices you have and the consequences of them. In your mind, all the futures that are possible. Here, the river. There, the specialist. There, the flight. G shuffles his feet behind you, he puts his hand on your shoulder. The air grows warmer, you can feel the infinitesimal change upon your skin as well as the pain blooming within you, usually held to a dull ache with medication. How long to find the things you seek, how long to regain them. There are no clear answers. You close your eyes and decide again. And again. And again.

G squeezes your shoulder and says, it’s time to go. All right, you tell him, I’m ready. At least you had this time, no matter how short. At least you have this hope of this future. He wheels you around and you see the old man still writing. The sun is rising and the characters drawn in water on the sidewalk lift into the air as mist.


  1. This is a beautiful and poetic piece of writing. I particularly enjoy how the structure of the sentances takes me along – like a dance. Quiet and reflective – it’s a truly beautiful piece of writing!

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