Upstart by Lu Ban

Clarkesworld continues to bring great translated stories. This story is translated from Chinese by Blake Stone-Banks and is another story that deals with death and especially what makes a life worth living.

In some unspecified dystopian future a state handles the overpopulation by offering a program that gives people a good deal of money if they accept certain death at a younger age. The story follows a man called K Li who takes such a deal and the story is split between his meeting with an advisor that administers the practicalities when he accepts the deal as a teenager and later in his life when his time is almost up. The deal is enforced with a drug that will slowly and painfully kill when the specified time of death is reached, which can be avoided if they seek out voluntary euthanasia at the states clinic.

Most of the story takes places when K Li is around 40 years old and the drug will soon kill him. He lives in an apartment building with other “upstarts” – the term used for those who have taken this deal. It is clear that even though he got several millions he could use until his death some 20 years later, he hasn’t had a good life. He spends most of his time being passed out drunk in his apartment, not unlike many of the other “upstarts” in his apartment complex. The deal might give people money, but lots of rights are also taken away and the rest of the population seems to resent the “upstarts”.

One day a young woman shows up at his door and convinces him that there might be an antidote for the drug that will soon kill him, and she leads him to what appears to be some sort of resistance group. The story evolves into an exciting thrillerplot with quite a surprising ending.

What I think makes this story work so well and why I would consider it worthy in a “best of the year”-anthology is how it tackles this “deal with Devil”-type scenario with a proper amount of emotional depth without going overboard into melancholy. There is also a pretty exciting thriller plot and both parts are given enough space in the story, so one is not merely a piece to make the other element work. We don’t get a lot of background information on this society or why it handles overpopulation in such a way, but it is not needed to make the story engaging and thought provoking in how to put value on a human life.


Read in Clarkesworld December 2022
Rating: 4

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