Highlighting an aspect of modern society has always been the goal of Prose Dive’s fictional works. Well, a goal, at least. I like to imagine that someone, somewhere, is out there keeping score for me. So if you feel like Prose Dive shows special treatment to short stories that focus on technology, save your criticism for something that really deserves it. More often than not, these stories have something more interesting to say than “technology is bad; boo technology!” Remember: we’re here to learn something. Maybe.
“Coming of the Light” by Chen Quifan deals with a simple Idea premise: what happens when you mix the freedom from materialist views of Buddhist doctrine with the viral potentiality of social media? The result – a story about risk, reward, and existential crisis.
ABANDON ALL HOPE (of discovering the story yourself) YE WHO ENTER HERE (without reading the story first).
“Coming of the Light” begins in a smoke-filled office in Zhongguancun, known as “China’s Silicon Valley.” A marketing team is brainstorming a way to make their client’s photo-taking app sexy enough to go viral, effectively winning the hearts of consumers via social media before moving on to the enterprise-level. It’s a modern setting that feels very much at home shelved alongside The Wolf of Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, and seven seasons of Mad Men. But if you’re expecting corporate backstabbing, remember – we deal with speculative fiction setting here at Prose Dive. “Coming of the Light” has suits and ties and knives, sure, but it’s way, way in the background.
The speculative parts are in the unique way it combines technology and mystical Buddhist elements. The app the team is working on features a watermarking technology that can remove any alterations done to a photo and restore it back to its original form Think of it like that time you photoshopped yourself as one of the crew aboard the starship Enterprise; this app could revert the changes with the click of a button (sorry, I know you really wanted to be Riker). Not exactly whiz-bang-pow sci-fi, but it has a near-futuristic quality that fits in with today’s selfie-obsessed social landscape. The app isn’t very sexy, not yet, which only helps us understand the team’s plight all the more.
So where does the Buddhism come in? The setting is in China, as you’ll recall. somewhere around 20% of the population adheres to Buddhist beliefs (thank you, Wikipedia), but that’s just in our world. Buddhism is still a part of the lives of the general Chinese public in “Coming of the Light,” enough so that protagonist Zhou Chongbo can capitalize on it by getting the app “consecrated” by a monk. His mode of thought: if everyone believes their Facebook and Instagram posts to truly save the rainforests, or stop animal cruelty, or the latest slacktivist flavor of the week, they’d be all the more willing to throw money at an app that, in theory, would have their online goodwill backed up by the Buddha himself.
This exploiting of public perception is marketing’s bread and butter – in our world as well as the story’s. Throw a 10k year old religion in the mix, and you’re playing with some neat-o worldbuilding blocks. Because suddenly, the “Buddhagrams” are causing people to be healed. Illnesses to disappear, etc. The app that had been consecrated as part of a smart marketing effort is now performing miracles.
As an Idea story, “Coming of the Light” doesn’t need a lot of characterization. Zhou Chongbo gives us just enough to work with. He’s not very complex, but he’s proactive; he gets results. And when those results end up with the campaign in shambles and his client’s business ruined, how do we feel about him? Is there something in him we can relate to?
Like our last protagonist, Chongbo isn’t a complete scumbag. He’s good at the marketing gig, and when he blows it by hiring an actor posing as a monk to consecrate the app, the public sniffs it out, and Chongbo turns from the unrelatable genius to the dude in the tight spot. Unable to deal with the results of his actions, he retreats to a Buddhist temple far from the world he’s known to repent. Trouble finds him there too, because Conflict.
Think about the last time you really blew it. Maybe it was with your coworkers, or your significant other; any situation where someone’s happiness, maybe even their livelihoods, were strained will do. Without going full psychiatrist, I would surmise it made you feel – and I’m using the medical term here – pretty damn shitty. Multiply that shittiness per person, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like to fuck up Chongbo-style. You don’t have to work in digital marketing to feel for the guy.
The plot of “Coming of the Light” is a nightmare sequence for anyone even remotely familiar with the idea of selling stuff to other people. From its conception to its implosion, we see the Buddhagram app get fueled by a genius risky move (consecrate the app), go viral (get used by a good ~20% of the Chinese Buddhist population), and then die a fiery death. Chongbo’s company goes dark, their client loses his fortunes, and Chongbo himself retreats to a Buddhist temple to repent. If you’re thinking, “All that for a little PR lie?” let me impart this word of wisdom: The Internet never forgets and it never forgives. In marketing, getting the public on your side can turn you into a made man, but if they see you won them over using ill means, they will annihilate you. Same goes even more so in “Coming of the Light.”
The story gives us one more Big Idea to chew on before we’re let go. I mean, a story about a marketing guy messing up – that’s not the “soul” of this story at all. Instead, author Quifan goes Full Existential on us when Chongbo, finding out the head monk of his temple is in fact a closet technophile, learns the truth behind the success of the Buddhagram, despite their supposed phoniness. The head monk shows what he believes proves the existence and very imminent return of Buddha, brought about by the development of the Buddhagram app. Chongbo is left pondering his role in this, or if it’s even true. Even having escaped to this temple, he’s still running into forces that are trying to force his perception to fit their end goal.
The final, final bit of ending (I promise!) shows Chongbo back home, returned to his pregnant wife, where he learns the patent for the Buddhagram technology is up for grabs. “It’s not over,” he realizes, and he comes to several conclusions about fate and destiny and that sort of thing. The story ends (for reals) with Chongbo all starry-eyed over his newborn son, and he realizes that, despite everything wrong with the world he’s known, some things are worth enduring it for. Some things are out of your control, and since you can’t control every aspect of your life, it’s just easier to accept that.
If I’m being honest here, it’s a pretty convoluted ending; I’ve read it around eight times and I’m still asking questions. But maybe that’s its purpose? They say that truly good endings should leave you wondering, but I wonder if “They” ever had something like this in mind.
I love stories that mix two real world elements and combine them into something unique, speculating what their interactions would be like. That’s the blending of the ordinary and the extraordinary that makes so many stories a delight to read. “Coming of the Light” merges two elements from our real world, one old and one new, and does such a good job that I can look past its somewhat murky ending and see the gem beneath it. There’s a greater message there, but it’s kind of ineffectual compared to the other, more interesting interactions. I appreciate that it “goes there,” though; great speculative fiction, and marketing, if we’ve learned anything from the story, is nothing without a little risk.
Choosing what to focus on in a time when technology is knocking nonstop on your digital doors is something to keep in mind. Sometimes you can just get swept up in the tide of the times, as Chongbo did, carried away on the demanding waves of social interactions. Or you can choose to turn back to real, grassroots reality, and find out how liberating it can be. Technology isn’t going anywhere, but neither are we, I guess? So I think it’s best to acknowledge where you stand, and just try to keep your ship afloat.