Ken Liu is an award-winning (Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy) American writer of Science Fiction; with a sideline of translating Chinese (mostly, but not exclusively SF) into English, besides having a law degree and working as a programmer! For Invisible Planets – An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction he is not just the translator for all the stories, but also listed as Editor.
The book starts with an Introduction by Ken, titled China Dreams. It introduces the reader to some background on Chinese SF, explains his selection for this book, and some pitfalls to avoid for the reader. This mainly can be summarised as ‘Chinese SF is huge and varied, don’t project your own preoccupation of China onto the stories’. Fair point, I felt.
After that we get started on the 13 short stories contained in the book. These are ordered by author, each of which gets a short introduction/bio before their stories. All of those, save one (Night Journey of the Dragon Horse, by Zia Jia) have been previously published in English.
This is followed by three Essays on Chinese SF.
Below is a run-through of the individual stories, with a brief capsule review for each. This contains, by its nature, spoilers; if this bothers you then stop here with my recommendation that this, as is usual for such a colleciton, very varied in scope and approach, but also fascinating and very much worth your time and money!
Chen Qiufan: The Year of the Rat
A soldier, fighting escaped, semi-intelligent, engineered rats. Allegorical, laced with symbolism, and multi-layered, it leaves you with a sense of slight unease…
Chen Quifan: The Fish of Lijiang
A sales/marketing employee, an overachiever, with PNFD (Psychogenic Neural Functional Disorder) – he experienced a multiplicity of identities – has been sent to Lijiang for rehab. The town is not the artists/freedom Bohemia he remembers from his first visit. Sad, very. Believable, sadly too.
Chen Quifan: The Flower of Shazui
The story of a man, hiding from his past and in love with a beautiful prostitute, tries to atone for a misdeed in his past, and digs himself into the next hole. Guilt junkie… A fascinating world.
Xia Jia – A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
The tale of Ning, the only living being on Ghost Street, a tourist attraction staffed by Ghosts (containing the souls of humans). He was found as a baby, and is being brought up and educated by the Ghosts. Except – but that would be telling, no?
Bitter-sweet story, strangely linked to (parts of) Spirited Away in my head, at least for the pictures…
Xia Jia – Tongtong’s Summer
A story of (slightly) futuristic tele-medicine and its societal impact, told through the eyes of a child. As believable as it is emotionally impacting and affecting.
Xia Jia – Night Journey of the Dragon Horse
This story follows one of the mechanical animals from Nantes, the eponymous Dragon Horse, sold to China. I has survived, somnolent, past the end of Human Civilisation, it seems, and is awakening to a changed world. This is framed in poetry by Hai Zi.
“Riding the five-thousand-year-old phoenix and a dragon whose name is “horse”, I am doomed to fail. But poetry itself, wielding the sun, will surely triumph.”
Ma Boyong – The City of Silence
A classic tale of extreme, and ever-increasing censorship. Changed, when originally written, to avoid censorship…
Hao Jingfang – Invisible Planets
“…the direction of narrative is not guided by the tongue, but by the ear”
This talks about travelling, and about telling and hearing stories, woven around a series fo classic SF worldbuilding vignettes. Beautiful.
Hao Jingfang – Folding Beijing
Set in a, in my eyes, very Chinese future society (see the warning above…), in a Beijing which has 3 settings, First/2nd/3rd Space, which rotate and live in (unequal) turns to make space for everyone, separating the populace into High Society, Professional Services, and Basic Support. It talks of traffic, trafficking, and love affairs across these boundaries. Fascinating, even if I doubt that I have sufficient societal knowledge and awareness to really appreciate this fully.
Somehow this is the story which stayed with me long after reading the book…
Tang Fei – Call Girl
A story of a call girl, very expensive, who tells stories. In a world which is – no, this would be telling. Short. Fascinating. Very well executed.
Cheng Jingbo – Grave of the Fireflies
The tale of the end of the Universe, and about love. And of how one of these can bring about the other. Hugely poetic, evocative, and tragic. Marvellous.
Liu Cixin – The Circle
Fleshing out a brief scene from the Three Body Problem – using soldiers as a calculating organisation, as a computer. Classic ‘golden era’ SF in scope and execution.
Liu Cixin – Taking Care of God
There are plenty stories of seeding and of uplifting. This here is both of those – and it follows the thread, the reason for doing so for a Civilisation all the way to its logical ending, to highly entertaining effect.
This is followed by 3 Essays:
Liu Cixin – The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earth: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction
Chen Qinfan – The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition
Xia Jia – What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?
Whilst this is, like every Anthology ever, a mixed bag I found the level of writing (and of translation, I presume!) to be very high, and the subject matter and execution to be fascinating and enchanting in many cases. Unless you require your writers, and your protagonists to be straight white males I would strongly suggest you give this a try!
More Ken Liu
Title: Invisible Planets – An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction
Author: Ken Liu (Translator/Editor)
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Head of Zeus/Tor
Publisher URL: http://www.headofzeus.com
Publication Date: 2016
Review Date: 171008