China is adept in the construction of awe-inspiring feats of engineering – high speed train lines, vast bridges and improbable tunnels, deep water ports, super cities, entire island systems and so on. This is a fact echoed throughout Monkey Steals Plum, and one that is embodied by the book’s entrepreneurial protagonist Feng. Hence many of the stories that appear on my ‘China radar’ prompt in me a sense of life imitating art, again.
So, perhaps it is not that intriguing to hear of yet another gargantuan project nearing completion. However China’s so-called “F.A.S.T. project” is newsworthy for a few reasons.
First is the superlative nature to what is under construction: ‘FAST’ is the world’s largest radio telescope. The ‘F’ in the acronym stands for ‘Five hundred metres’ – that is nearly twice the diameter of the current largest radio telescope, found in Puerto Rico (pictured).
Some perspective. Jodrell Bank radio telescope is located not far from my home. No matter how many times I visit or drive by, its large structures are a weird and wonderful sight in an otherwise pristine countryside context. Its main dish is 76.2m (250ft) in diameter…
In stark contrast the new dish in China is more than 6.5 times larger with a 500m diameter. It will, apparently, take 40 minutes for a person to walk one complete circuit of its perimeter.
The scale is doubly intriguing. In the course of my research for Monkey… I came across numerous American astronomers and astrophysicists bemoaning the lack of both ambition and funding for just such major projects in the USA that could significantly improve space exploration and elevate the potential afterglow of benefits to all of us here on Earth. Second – whether or not it is a postural snub to the space programs led by other nations – the Chinese ambition and spending does signal that nation’s intent when it comes to space exploration.
For me, these kinds of significant Chinese (space/tech/engineering) developments are a happy coincidence, serendipity, or perhaps even a kind of vindication for setting many locations of my short debut novel within China. It is naturally pleasing to stumble upon such stories, to see the growing role of China in the big picture, global narrative and to feel the resonance with Monkey…
The location of this real world mega build lies up in the mountains of Guizhou Province, South West China. This is one of the Chinese locations in the book for which I do not have first-hand experience. That said, it was selected as the birthplace for my protagonist, Feng, because of its rugged, expansive, less-well-known terrain (furthermore, Guizhou doubles as the location chosen by Feng to build his deep water facility for aquanauts in training to become astronauts)…
As the TV show host briefly engaged Feng on his source, she heard the Australian director twang in her earpiece.
‘20 seconds, Lu.’
The host thanked her special guest while upstairs the director muted his line to Lu and addressed his crew.
Lu turned to camera to wrap up.
‘Here we must leave our distinguished guest, truly a glorious son of China, who rose from humble beginnings in Guizhou Province to build the super cities of the Pearl River Delta. His next chapter will be his greatest as he pioneers space exploration to find the resources for his motherland and all of humanity.’
The veteran director turned to his Chinese colleague at the control desk.
‘Streuth. Lu’s star struck.’
At the tail of the aforementioned news item there is a further, microcosmic, case of life imitating art. The chief scientist on China’s FAST project explains: “A radio telescope is like a sensitive ear, listening to tell meaningful radio messages from white noise in the universe. It is like identifying the sound of cicadas in a thunderstorm.”
Cicadas are an apt simile for the scientist to have used given Feng’s insect house on the 88th floor of Feng Tower (*):
‘Madame, would you like some tea?’
A softly spoken voice stole her eyes from Feng. She swivelled about turn and found that Duan had entered the room. Isabelle felt her head jolt in double-take as she was distracted by a large glass case full of branches and leaves and movement. An insect house filled the entire back wall which had been out of view when she had entered to greet Feng. Duan’s lips made a half-smile like Feng.
Duan encouraged Isabelle towards a glass table and two chairs in front of the glass panelled insect house, before he exited.
Isabelle stood close up to the glass and was mesmerised by small winged insects. She looked closer at the oversized, red eyes of one of the creatures stretched on a twig. It twitched. Isabelle jumped.
(*) Life imitating art, again.