Summary: Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.
In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.
Review: I want to start this review by saying that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to get my hands on sci-fi like this. More and more I become aware that my own view of the world is a very limited one, narrow and specific, and the chance to broaden my horizons and be able to read great stories by people who have experienced life entirely differently than I did is something I appreciate a lot. The more I read things like this, the more I become aware of, if nothing else, the myriad ways growing up in the culture I did has influenced me; I wouldn’t be the same person had I grown up in another country, another culture, another time. And though it’s a selfish way to begin this review, I think it bears saying. Invisible Planets takes Western readers outside a comfort zone they may not have even realized they were in, dropping them into the middle of futures imagined by people whose lives were shaped in different ways than our own.
Invisible Planets contains stories and essays from a variety of Chinese SFF writers, and all of them are good (despite one being the kind of story that I couldn’t quite wrap my head fully around, I could still at least recognise the quality of it). Though even by the end of it I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of what makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese, I can at least say that the stories in Invisible Planets had a feel to them that I very rarely encounter in Western-based sci-fi, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it and say, “This. This is what Chinese sci-fi reads like.” But even if I can’t properly identify it, I still enjoy it, enjoy the cultural and perspective shift that comes with reading something so firmly rooted in a culture I didn’t experience and absorb; Invisible Planets has a lot of that.
It’s at this point that I wish I was better equipped to dissect the stories and their origins more deeply. I feel like there’s a lot that could be said — and indeed should be said about the collection I just devoured, but I’m no authority on it, and I think half the things I might say might be influenced not only by my experience with reading the stories but also with my own cultural blindspots when trying to interpret another culture. Translator Ken Liu pointed out a few times through his notes in the book that it would be so easy to interpret some stories in certain ways that play to North American ideas of what China is, was, and might be like, but that’s not always a good idea. In one of the essays at the end of the book, author Liu Cixin comments that a North American author once tried to clarify some differences between Chinese sci-fi and the sci-fi we’re more familiar with here in Canada and America, but missed some points and fell short of the mark.
That said, though, my experience with this book, as someone who is admittedly ignorant of much of Chinese history and culture, is probably closer to what most readers will experience than those with more familiar backgrounds. Most readers of this anthology aren’t going to be able to pick out a dozen and one subtle cultural aspects that influence and make up the inspiration behind the stories told here. They’re just going to appreciate them for the stories they are. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that, so long as readers at least go in with an open mind and don’t expect to find stories exactly like the ones an American would write, nor something so outside our sphere of experience that we can’t understand it.
As with any anthology, some stories stand out to me more than others, the ones that made their mark a little deeper and that I’ll probably go back and read again in the future. Chen Qiufan’s The Year of the Rat is the story of young men attempting to combat mutant rats who have gotten out of control, and in the end is a story about genocide and uncertainty. Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence is one of the most chilling possible futures I’ve ever read about; when the State controls everything, including what you can and can’t say, where do people turn to express their humanity, and how far does either side go in pursuit of their goals? Liu Cixin’s The Circle is similar to one of the scenes from The Three-Body Problem that has always stuck in my mind, the creation of a human computer, moving from simple binary commands to more complex reactionary coding, in order to compute the digits of pi. And Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing was a true gem in this collection, in which economic castes are separated from each other by time, and one man will go to great lengths to assure his daughter a decent place in the world.
Folding Beijing was one that struck me very deeply. There are pieces, in each section of the city that Lao Dao visits, where people talk about how much money they make. Throwaway lines, worked into dialogue naturally, but they make a good point. While visiting Second Space, Lao Dao talks to someone who makes about 100,000 yuan a month. Lao Dao thinks to himself that in Third Space, where he lives, he makes a standard 10,000 yuan a month. While in First Space, a woman offers him 100,000 yuan, and comments offhand that she earns that in about a week. It reminded me so much of a previous job I had, working contract for a section of a credit card company where my clients all possessed the 2nd most prestigious card the company offered, and sometimes when things didn’t go their way, they’d complain of being treated like second-class citizens and how it was outrageous that they were being charged so much. These people, just in order to have the card, had to earn as much in a month as I would make in an entire year at that job, and I was earning almost 50% above minimum wage at the time. So Folding Beijing flashed me back to that time, talking with people who thought little about spending as much on 2 nights at a hotel as I would spend on an entire month’s rent, and it really was like we were from completely separate worlds that never would really touch. I felt that connection to Lao Dao, because in such a situation, what can you really say, when someone says that something utterly beyond you is no big deal for them?
Invisible Planets is absolutely a sci-fi anthology that I recommend, and to pretty much everyone who reads SFF. The perspective shift is refreshing, the stories top-notch, and the essays enlightening. Ken Liu has done a fantastic job in translating them for English-speaking audiences, and the whole experience has made me hungry for more. Go and pick this book up as soon as you’re able; I guarantee you won’t regret it.
(Received for review from the publisher.)