Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Translator’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 1, 2016

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.)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

Review: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings made waves when it was released, and with good reason. And even before that, he caught my attention with the occasional short story I read in other anthologies. So when I heard that a collection of those short stories and more was being released, I knew it was going to be something I’d have to get my hands on.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Only 2 of the stories were ones I’d read before (Mono no Aware, and The Paper Menagerie), so all the rest were new to me, and all of them were freaking brilliant. Even rereading the two I’d previously read didn’t feel in the slightest bit stale, which is a sign of a great story. Seriously, I would reread this entire anthology again, not just a couple of stories from it!

Most of the stories have a connection to East Asian culture, mostly Chinese but with a bit of Japanese thrown in now and again, and so it’s impossible to come away from this collection without having a greater appreciation for the world beyond the West, and the history that goes along with it. Liu dips not only speculative futurefic here, but also looks back into history and mythology, making for an impressive variety of stories. All the Flavours turned out to be one of my favourites in the entire collection, which surprised me, since at first I thought i was going to be either one of the ones I’d already read, or else The Perfect Match for its not-at-all-veiled criticism of modern online interconnectivity. But All the Flavours dealt with history, mythology, and touched on uncomfortable racism that isn’t entirely of the past. It’s probably the longest offering in the book, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

This is one of those rare times when I can safely rate a collection 5 stars instead of the usual 4 that these things usually end up. All of the stories here are top-notch, the content wonderful and fantastic and speculative. The stories are thought-provoking, inspiring, and they spark curiosity (to which end Liu has also kindly provided info about articles and books that inspired some of the more sci-fi stories). For all this review has ended up being short (there’s only so much praise I can heap upon a thing without essentially ruining the plot of multiple stories), what it amounts to is that this collection is absolutely worth reading, and your SFF collection will be poorer without it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

February Wrap-Up

For such a short month, February sure seems to have dragged on. Somehow. I blame the 2 large storms in a single week, followed by a week of mild weather that resulted in all that snow melting and leaking into my basement.

Fun times.

Plus convenient things to blame for time wonkiness.

Anyway, down to what you actually came here to see.

Other Stuff

Super Sekrit Project is a bit delayed, but I figure eh, I may as well stop making it so Super Sekrit. I’m starting up a series of video game review videos.

Yes, yes, I know that by this point, everyone and their dog has a YouTube channel talking about video games. This is hardly the most original idea I’ve ever had. I’m aware that whatever I do isn’t going to get big and be game-changing. But that’s not why I want to do it. Much like with books, I play a fair number of video games, and I have opinions about them, and I figure there’s no reason why I shouldn’t talk about those opinions.

And with video, I can show footage of the game to better illustrate points, rather than relying solely on text.

Plus sometimes I come across games that are just really bad, and there’s something fun about highlighting that every now and then.

I’m not 100% sure when it’ll go live. I’m thinking maybe the middle or March, or maybe a bit more toward the end of the month. Recording games and editing videos is surprisingly time-consuming, even while I enjoy it. So while I can’t say for certain that yes, everything will go live on a certain date, it shouldn’t be too much longer. I’ll make a post here when it does, in case anyone’s curious and fancies taking a look.

The Books

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Moon has spent his life hiding what he is – a shape-shifter able to transform himself into a winged creature of flight. An orphan with only vague memories of his own kind, Moon tries to fit in among the tribes of his river valley, with mixed success. Just as Moon is once again cast out by his adopted tribe, he discovers a shape-shifter like himself… someone who seems to know exactly what he is, who promises that Moon will be welcomed into his community. What this stranger doesn’t tell Moon is that his presence will tip the balance of power… that his extraordinary lineage is crucial to the colony’s survival… and that his people face extinction at the hands of the dreaded Fell Now Moon must overcome a lifetime of conditioning in order to save and himself… and his newfound kin.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Serpent Sea, by Martha Wells
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Moon, once a solitary wanderer, has become consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. Together, they travel with their people on a pair of flying ships in hopes of finding a new home for their colony. Moon finally feels like he’s found a tribe where he belongs. But when the travelers reach the ancestral home of Indigo Cloud, shrouded within the trunk of a mountain-sized tree, they discover a blight infecting its core. Nearby they find the remains of the invaders who may be responsible, as well as evidence of a devastating theft. This discovery sends Moon and the hunters of Indigo Cloud on a quest for the heartstone of the tree — a quest that will lead them far away, across the Serpent Sea.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Siren Depths, by Martha Wells
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: All his life, Moon roamed the Three Worlds, a solitary wanderer forced to hide his true nature — until he was reunited with his own kind, the Raksura, and found a new life as consort to Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud court. But now a rival court has laid claim to him, and Jade may or may not be willing to fight for him. Beset by doubts, Moon must travel in the company of strangers to a distant realm where he will finally face the forgotten secrets of his past, even as an old enemy returns with a vengeance. The Fell, a vicious race of shape-shifting predators, menaces groundlings and Raksura alike. Determined to crossbreed with the Raksura for arcane purposes, they are driven by an ancient voice that cries out from . . . .The siren depths.

Review: Review forthcoming.

The Alchemy of Chaos, by Marshall Ryan Maresca
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Veranix Calbert is The Thorn—the street vigilante-turned-legend—and a danger to Willem Fenmere, the drug kingpin of Dentonhill. Veranix is determined to stop Fenmere and the effitte drug trade, especially when he discovers that Fenmere is planning on using the Red Rabbits gang in his neighborhood. But Veranix is also a magic student at the University of Maradaine, and it’s exam week. With his academic career riding on his performance, there’s no time to go after Fenmere or the Red Rabbits. But when a series of pranks on campus grow deadly, it’s clear that someone has a vendetta against the university, and Veranix may be the only one who can stop them…

Review: Having read and enjoyed the other two Maradaine novels that Maresca has written, it was no surprise to me that I similarly enjoyed this one. The story returns to Veranix, still attempting to get through his classes at the university while maintaining his secret life as a vigilante bent on bringing down a druglord. The pressure rises as attacks on the University and its residents disrupt life and make it more difficult for Veranix to sneak out and live his alternate life, and at the same time a group of assassins have been hired to take down the Thorn once and for all.

Maresca has a gift for writing action and intrigue, both of which shine in The Alchemy of Chaos. There’s a mystery afoot, and while some hints are dropped along the way, there’s also enough misdirection to keep the reader turning pages, looking for more information about who’s attacking the University and who’s prodding the Red Rabbits along. First you think you know, then you don’t. It’s a great tense mystery, and it was a lot of fun to read through. That’s really what these novels come down to, in a nutshell. They’re fun. They’re fast and witty and like any good action story, they keep you hanging on and wanting more because you don’t want the adventure to end. That’s why I enjoy this series so much. It doesn’t pretend to be deep and dark and serious and some epic world-changing piece of fantasy. It excels at being what it is, and that is pure enjoyment.

I do have a minor nitpick, and your mileage may vary on this one, but the the ending of the novel seem too… neat for my taste. Specifically, a chance accident early on in the book leads to things being set up in what is stated as literally the only way for the culprit’s plan to be foiled and everyone to be saved. I admit that in a novel that is basically about a secondary-world superhero, you have to allow for some suspension of disbelief, but this too-convenient setup stretched that to its limits. It didn’t ruin anything, but it did have me raising an eyebrow.

Still, The Alchemy of Chaos was a good trip back into a fun fantasy world, and I’m keeping my eyes open for future installments. This is the kind of series that you keep coming back to for low-commitment low-stress light reading, and I like this ideas that Maresca plays with here, from retribution to the effects of the past to just plain knowing the difference between friends and enemies. Worth taking a chance on, and if you already liked the other 2 books he wrote, then chances are you’ll like this one too.

The Paper Menagerie, and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

Review: Review forthcoming.

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 7, 2015

Summary: Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, soaring battle kites, conspiring goddesses, underwater boats, magical books, as a streetfighter-cum-general who takes her place as the greatest tactitian of the age. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Thoughts: When people think about epic fantasy, they often think about a a series, something longer than a trilogy, that spans many years and is full of great and far-reaching events. Ken Liu manages to achieve this in a single novel. Though it is the first book of a series, the scale that it deals with is immense, and it works fairly well as a standalone epic fantasy, which can be hard to come by.

The Grace of Kings features a large and diverse cast of characters, but the story generally revolves around two main figures: Kuni Garu, the smooth-talking bandit-turned-war-leader, and Mata Zyndu, a hard and fierce fighter who shows no weakness and despises betrayal. With the previous emperor recently dead and his heir being a boy with no knowledge of governance and so who leaves the running of the empire to his advisors, the empire is in turmoil. Abuses of power run rampant. Death from tyranny and neglect are everywhere. And not being the type of people to take this quietly, Kuni and Mata take it upon themselves to make a difference. As people flock to them and the lines are drawn, great change is in the air for the empire. But as with any war,it’s far from clean, it’s far from clear-cut, and it’s as brutal and political as anyone could expect.

And all the while, the gods watch on…

Honestly, it’s a difficult novel to sum up properly. It’s full of military strategy and tactics and politics, as real war is. It’s not possible to say that one side is right and the other is wrong. It’s not possible to just root for the good guys, the liberators, because there’s every chance that the army who liberates you will turn into your new oppressors. Your loyal advisor may be plotting your demise. When the winds change direction, so too might the people closest to you. War is messy, and not just on the battlefield, and Liu portrays this well. As such, it’s difficult to say, “Oh yes, this side does this thing and that side does that thing,” because it’s true right up to the point where it changes. And then it changes half a dozen times. The lines get redrawn so many time you might well need a flowchart to keep up with things.

It’s that very thing that makes it such a good novel, though. For one thing, it’s definitely got reread value, since reading it through a second time might make many of the events a lot clearer when you know a bit of what’s coming. Much like how it’s hard to tell how any given event will turn out while it’s happening, in hindsight things often seem a lot clearer. So if you’re looking for a realistic portrayal of both the violent and the political sides of war, then this is a fantastic novel for those things.

It’s also fantastically realistic in that not every character sticks around to the end, and not just because they get killed. Again, much in the way that it happens in real life, characters show up, play a small role for a few chapters, and then vanish into history, leaving a little influence behind but not always an essential one, one that changes the course of the story or is absolutely necessary to the tale being told. Kikomi, for instance, played a role that was important for her people, she had a bit of influence on Mata especially, but when all is said and done, her scenes and her name could have been excised from the novel and I don’t really think anything would have changed.

Which is a shame, because she was really a fascinating character, and I wished she’d had a larger role in the story.

This is both a positive and a negative, in my opinion. As I said, it makes it wonderfully realistic, because people are like that. They come and go and don’t always have some great role to play in the grand scheme of things. I liked seeing that, because they were like little side stories that added detail and flavour to the piece, made it feel more complete. On the other hand, it creates scenes that feel an awful lot like filler, scenes that could have been cut without losing anything, and things felt meandering at times.

The large cast of characters also was both of a positive and a negative. They’re hard things to manage at the best of times, and then you add in all the chaos of war. They bordered on unwieldy here, and if you asked me what certain characters did, I might not be able to tell you. They played important roles, won important battles and strongly influenced how the story would turn out, but there were so many of them that they were hard to keep straight.

Perhaps this is a very subjective complaint. Other people with better minds for it might have had a much easier time. And I can’t deny that they had great importance and added a good deal to the story. But some of them were just unmemorable.

But onto things that were positive without anything negative attached to them. I adored the addition of the gods to the story. They weren’t just passive watchers, either, as it would have been easy to do when they had all made a pact not to directly interfere or bring harm to mortals. But they often appeared in disguise to offer advice to characters who had attracted their attention, and in the case of Tazu, influenced the outcome of battles in a very clear way but still managed to stick to the letter of the pact, if not the spirit of it. They were varied, primal, and fascinating characters in their own rights.

It’s not often that I can say this, but I loved the presentation of war here. Specifically, I liked that it wasn’t a gradual build to one giant fight that would decide everything. It was a series of small victories or losses. The final battle of the book wasn’t any bigger than the ones that had come before it. Territories were gained and lost numerous times. And as I mentioned previously, sometimes the victor oppressed citizens of newly-captured cities much more harshly than the people who held it before; it wasn’t a story of good versus evil, no matter how much the rebel armies had started with the good intention of freeing people from tyranny and slavery. Good people did horrible things in the name of the greater good, and that greater good wasn’t necessarily good in the long run. Mata Zyndu might have been brilliant on the battlefield, but he’s lousy at politics and governance, and people suffered for what he did in the name of creating a better world.

Ken Liu has managed to do something I didn’t think possible. He managed to make me like how a war was presented. I honestly didn’t think it could be done, but evidently, I was wrong, and it’s The Grace of Kings that I have to thank for it. The realistic portrayal of people and events, the way things were less than clear-cut, and the way it wasn’t all about either fighting or politics, but a solid mix of the two, was genius. I’m already looking forward to the second book in the series, especially knowing that at least one of my favourite characters makes a comeback, and I have high hopes that it will be just as great as this one. The Grace of Kings is a brilliant novel, full of action and philosophy in equal measure, paving the way for silkpunk fantasy to take a strong place on many bookshelves.

(Received for review from the author.)

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings hits the shelves today, and because he’s an awesome person, he was willing to do a short interview with me, answering a few questions I had about the book (my review of which will be live tomorrow, so stay tuned)!

1) One scene struck me fairly early on, and that was the scene with people trying to convince Erishi that a deer was a horse. That reminded me of a commonly-told meaning behind the Japanese characters for “idiot,” (written with the kanji for “horse” and “deer”), the story for which goes that it refers to someone so stupid they can’t tell the difference between a horse and a deer. Was it something similar that inspired that scene?

The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the history and legends surround the rise of the Han Dynasty in “silkpunk” epic fantasy form, and as such, I borrowed liberally from the source material when it suited my purposes. This particular scene is based on a real episode during the reign of the second emperor of the Qin Dynasty in Records of the Grand Historian, by Sima Qian. Sima’s history is the foundation for Chinese historiography, and this particular episode has become an often-used allusion in Chinese to describe those who would deliberately confuse truths with falsehoods.

2) What was the inspiration behind Mata Zyndu’s double pupils? (It was as a result of seeing this in The Grace of Kings that I discovered pupula duplex in the first place, so I’m really curious!)

In traditional Chinese physiognomy, the presence of the “double pupil” is supposed to be a sign that the person is destined for great things. Mata Zyndu is based on the historical figure of Xiang Yu, who was said to be double-pupiled. Ovid and other writers of classical Western antiquity also spoke of “pupula duplex” as a distinguishing mark (the Evil Eye), though it’s not clear exactly what physical condition the phrase referred to.

I chose to take the phrase literally, as this is, after all, a work of fantasy.

 3) From a writing standpoint, was it difficult to handle such a large cast of characters, especially when so much military strategy was involved?

My experience was with short stories, which could be kept all in the head during drafting. The biggest challenge for me as I shifted to the novel was keeping all the details about plot, timing, worldbuilding, and character traits straight. I ended up having to learn to keep a wiki for myself and essentially write a mini Wikipedia about Dara to be sure I recorded all my decisions.

4) Of them all, who was your favourite character to write?

This depends on the day you ask me the question! I’d say probably Gin Mazoti. She’s an interesting character who will develop further in the sequel, so giving her enough of a character arc in Book I to be satisfying was a challenge, but also instructive.

Thanks so much, Ken, for dropping by and agreeing toanswer questions about this amazing fantasy! (And I completely agree about Gin; she’s one of my favourite characters, and I can’t wait to see more of her in the sequel!)