I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.
I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.
If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.
I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.
Chen Qiufan: “The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”
Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.
Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”
Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.
Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”
“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.
Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”
Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.
Tang Fei: “Call Girl”
“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.
Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”
“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.
Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”
Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.