Review of Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

28220730Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation. Edited by Ken Liu. ★★★★

I don’t read nearly enough works in translation, so when I heard about Invisible Planets, I knew it was something I needed to read. And overall, I thought it was a pretty great collection!

Invisible Planets introduces seven different contemporary Chinese authors, all of whom have been translated by Ken Liu. Some of the stories are award winning, others are personal favorites of Liu. The collection includes one to three stories by each author, and there’s also some non-fiction essays at the very end.

Chen Quifan is the first author of the collection. I loved one of his stories, but the others left me cold. I think part of the problem for me is that all the stories were really male-centric, with women as accessories to men’s stories.  Specifically, that was an issue with me for “The Fish of Lijiang” and “The Flower of Shazui”. “The Fish of Lijang” has some interesting concepts — the main character is a workaholic who is sent to the vacation city of Lijang to relax. There he meets a woman who shows him what is wrong with his life. I liked how the story dealt with the concept of relative time, and it was well written. However, it wasn’t really for me. Same goes for “The Flower of Shazui,” where the main character is a man obsessed with a beautiful prostitute who’s being beaten by her husband. On the other hand, I did really enjoy Chen Quifan’s first story, “The Year of the Rat.” In this story, China is a major producer of Neorats, genetically engineered rats exported as pets for wealthy Westerners. But a strain of rats have escaped from the labs and are now infecting the countryside. The protagonist is a young college grad who, given the lack of other opportunities, has joined a rat squad, where he and the rest of his units are engaged in low level warfare with the rats. Only… how intelligent are the rats? Are they people? Do their lives have the same sort of value? It’s a dark and twisted story, but I loved it.

The second author is Xia Jia, who also has three stories in the collection. Aside from “Tongtong’s Summer”, her stories tend towards dreamlike and fantastical, even though they are all within the realms of science fiction. “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” deals with the classic science fiction question of what makes us human. How do you define personhood? The protagonist is a young boy who’s the only living person in a city of ghosts… a declining tourist trap staffed by robots. It’s a beautiful story. So is “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse,” which was first published in this collection. A robotic dragon horse awakens after humanity has ended and wanders through the ruins. “Tongtong’s Summer” is a more straight forward story than the others, a sweet and hopeful tale about a girl and her grandfather, who in his old age is still able to experience the world through robotic help.

Ma Boyong has only one story in the collection, “The City of Silence,” which is effectively a homage to Orwell’s 1984. In this grim future, the government has stopped listing banned words but has instead started listing words that are permitted. The number of words you’re allowed to say decreases every day, and language and human connection are slowly being lost. It’s another story that I found intellectually engaging, but it also replicates some elements of 1984 that I thought were sexist.

I enjoyed both stories by Hao Jingfang. “Invisible Planets” is a story told as a list, where an adult speaks to a child of all the planets they’ve seen. It’s beautifully written and doesn’t have the normal structure you except of a story. It actually reminded me a bit of Ken Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.” I wonder if one inspired another, or if they’re drawing off of something I don’t know of. However, I actually preferred “Folding Beijing”, which won the Hugo award a few years back. In this novelette, Beijing is divided into three, and it folds and unfolds, different parts of the city awake at different times. The protagonist is a poor garbage sorter working in third space, which gets the least time of all parts and practically never sees the sun. He’s been promised a reward if he manages to carry a message from a man in Second Space to a woman in First Space, where the privileged enjoy twenty-four hours at a time. It’s a wonderful story. The protagonist has a limited point of view, but he has inklings of some of the larger problems with his society.

Tang Fei and Cheng Jingbo each have one story in the collection “Call Girl” by Tang Fei is a brief story about a high school girl whose peers think she’s a sex worker. Instead, she’s actually using her supernatural powers to dive into wealthy men’s dreams. “Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jinbo was such a strange story, one that mixed both science fiction and fantasy. The universe is ending, there’s multiple planets, magicians, princesses, and a house beyond time. It’s intriguing although not easily comprehended.

Finally, Ken Liu includes two stories by the famous Liu Cixin, whom I’ve actually never read. His first story is an excerpt adapted from his famous novel The Three Body Problem. “The Circle” is an alternate history where a computer is made out of military formations. It’s a pretty cool idea. In “Taking Care of God,” advanced aliens who created humanity come back to Earth, wanting humans to take care of them in their own age. What happens when practically every household on the planet suddenly has to take care of an aging alien?

As I mentioned before, this collection also includes some essays on Chinese science fiction. Compared to the fiction, they weren’t particularly memorable. If you want a taste, you can find all of them on Tor.com:

Invisible Planets provided me with an overview of some current Chinese science fiction authors. I intend to read more of some of them, particularly Hao Jingfang. I’d recommend this collection to anyone interested in Chinese science fiction, science fiction in translation, or just some of the excellent short fiction being published today!

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