Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Review of Invisible Planets ed. by Ken Liu

Global diversity is a key term to discussing 21st century science fiction. From Lavie Tidhar’s Apex Book of World SF series of anthologies to Afro SF, The Future is Japanese to Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, these and many other compilations of short science fiction from abroad, not to mention individual novels and short stories, have expanded English language readers’ perspective of what science fiction can be. Adding a strong voice to the contemporary field are Chinese writers. And a lot of the availability of Chinese sf in English is due to the work Ken Liu. In 2016 Macmillan-Tor/Forge compiled many of his translations into a single volume, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation the result.

Grouped by author, Invisible Planets contains thirteen short stories and three essays from Chinese writers, all originally published in Chinese and later translated by Ken Liu. Several of the stories already known to English language readers of short science fiction; Clarkesworld, Interzone, award nominations, and other venues are represented. Variety inherent to style and content, the stories run the gamut of cyberpunk to humanism, satirical to fantastical, soft to hard science fiction, which, aside the cultural aspect, is one of the main draws to the anthology.

Chen Qiufan leads off Invisible Planets with three stories. “The Year of the Rat” depicts a group of soldiers culled from the ranks of unemployed students, sent to fight a war with a population of rats. The rats’ genetic modifications getting out of control, the main character finds himself caught between a tough drill sergeant and an enemy that may be more than it seems. Seemingly a story about generational gap (an idea supported by Chen’s essay later in the anthology), the imagery and flow of the story feel both allusive and overt. One of the best (if not the best story in the collection), “The Fish of Lijiang” tells of a workaholic sent by his company to get away from the corporate grind and relax in the former bohemian town of Lijiang. A place the narrator had once lived, he discovers nothing in Lijiang is as he remembers it—everything plastic and commercialized. While there, he meets a woman sent by her company to unwind, and in their interaction he slowly comes to realize his place in the larger scheme of employment and society. A subtle story, but one with weighty, intelligent purpose. The third story “The Flower of Shazui” deals with the illegal selling of intellectual property and living in the outlying villages and cities surrounding China’s big economic centers. It tells of an engineer who steals a tech secret, and when in hiding among the endless suburbs of Shenzhen, becomes involved with the locals in ways he never expected. The ending a touch manipulative, Chen nevertheless strikes hard upon issues inherent to fast economic growth.

Also contributing three stories to Invisible Planets is Xia Jia. Her content more varied compared to the first-person, near-future, male perspectives of Chen’s stories, in “The Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” Xia borrows the premise of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book but fills her story with Eastern imagery and characters, as well as taking the story in her own direction. About a young boy living in an old Buddhist Temple, his friends are ghosts of legend and demons of Buddhism. Gaiman’s premise developed in darker, more mature fashion, not everything turns out as it seems. Also vying for the top spot in the anthology is “Tongtong’s Summer”, a touching tale about a young girl and a summer she spends with her grandfather. When a robot caretaker remotely operated by a technician/nurse is introduced to their home, the health of Tongtong’s aging grandfather starts to improve. But when grandpa gets involved in the tech, the story really takes off. Possessing the perfect balance of wisdom and sentimentalism, it lacks melodrama while gently reminding the reader about the important things in life. The only previously unpublished story in the anthology, “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” is a wild ride prosaically, filled to the brim with vividness and aesthetics, and would seem open to a variety of interpretations. Not certain if this one previously unpublished story warrants purchase of the anthology as a whole, but it is quality writing indicative of the fact Chinese science fiction is not a rigid form.

The middle of Invisible Planets is populated by single offerings from different authors. Homage to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, “The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong is indeed a Big Brother tale, but one updated for the contemporary state of technology. With electronic dictionaries, email scanning, and a variety of other language processors available, the ruling state in the story uses all of the tools at its disposal to ensure the people are communicating “correctly”. When the main character almost accidentally learns to circumvent the system, a whole new world opens up. “Call Girl” by Tang Fei is the story of a highschooler who sells not herself but virtual stories… in the form of dogs… and told from the backseat of a beat up car. Yes, it’s Weird. “The Grave of Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo feels like Catherynne Valente’s “Silently, and Very Fast” yet has a purpose entirely unto its own. Poetic, vivid, allusive, literary—it begs to be read at several levels, from astronomy to fairy tale, and is pure pleasure to read as it dances in and out of coherency.

Two of Hao Jingfan’s stories selected for the anthology, the first is also the source of its title. “Invisible Planets” is the descriptions of various locations in the universe. Hao describes several planets and the aliens who inhabit them in deft, brief vignettes, simultaneously holding a mirror up to specific aspects of humanity. Each aspect exaggerated as a result, Hao forces the reader to look at existence from strange yet relatable perspectives, in turn demonstrating one of the real strengths of science fiction. Her second story, “Folding Beijing”, is simplistic by comparison. The setting/cart coming before the plot/horse, it tells of a trash worker named Lao Dao living in the poor districts of futuristic Beijing. And it’s a Beijing that bends and shapes itself according to social class depending on the hour of day. Lao Dao, in an attempt to earn extra money to send his daughter to kindergarten, tasks himself with delivering an illegal missive to another level. Essentially an excuse to have Lao Dao take a tour of clockwork Beijing, the man encounters the opulence of the upper level and in turn is forced to contextualize his poor, third-level existence. Working very strongly as metaphor for the spectrum of class and lifestyle Beijing has evolved into in recent years, the message is clear even if plot is not strong.

The last writer’s fiction included in Invisible Planets is Liu Cixin’s. Essentially an excerpt from his novel The Three-Body Problem, “The Circle Tangents” is character interplay from the computer game that forms the novel’s ideological core. The characters taken from Chinese history, Liu Cixin contextualizes the evolution of science/mankind in an all too human (read: absurdist) scene. While I think the story lacks the impact standing alone compared to embedded in the novel, it nevertheless delivers its dispatch with gusto. Liu Cixin’s second story “Taking Care of God” reverses Confucian filial piety in science fiction style. A mass of spaceships arrive in Earth’s atmosphere, and soon thereafter millions of elderly are seen walking around, begging for food and money. Calling themselves Gods, humanity eventually learns the people are Earth’s ancient yet technologically advanced ancestors, come home for the final millennia of their lives. A clash of values ensuing, Liu Cixin places into the resulting divide an ever-present morale.

Closing out Invisible Planets are three essays that make for interesting though not entirely enlightening experiences (due to length rather than content). “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction by Liu Cixin is a personal piece that attempts to contextualize the author’s own novels in the history of Chinese science fiction. All too brief, the essay covers a century in 2-3 paragraphs and only loosely builds an argument, but it does take the (self-inflated) Robert J. Sawyer to task for generalizing beyond his intellectual means, which is quite satisfying in its own right. “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition” by Chen Qiufan is more personal experience built on a brief recount of recent Chinese history, but focuses itself on the cultural/generational gap created by economic transformation in China—communism to capitalism—and the resulting backwash of mindsets as channeled through literary and science fiction. The best of the three essays, “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” by Xia Jia, also references older Chinese fiction, but adds detail, references, and overall creates a more distinct, informed view as to what Chinese science fiction might be.

Before closing, I can’t help but briefly discuss an irksome point regarding Invisible Planets. In the introduction and in a couple of the author bios, Ken Liu urges the reader not to reduce the anthology to simple analogies of the geopolitical concerns of China. A request with strong rationale, indeed the wider spectrum of human existence should be where the reader first looks when searching for meaning in the stories. But there are simply too many details—too many arrows pointing to “CHINA”—for some of the material not to be examined in that context. Liu openly states that Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” (a story which satirizes state censorship) required special editing in order to get past Chinese censors. “Folding Beijing” feels primarily to be commentary on the fast changing urban landscape and class structure in China. In Liu Cixin’s essay, there is direct reference to people from the Chinese IT community describing the Three-Body trilogy as a metaphor for their industry’s “cutthroat” business practices in China. And there are other examples wherein the stories are directly applicable to China. To come to the point, some of the stories in the anthology have the greatest impact precisely when rendered as analogies to Chinese-specific concerns. Applied too generally, in fact, some of the commentary loses value. After all, a story about censorship and free speech is imminently more applicable in a country like China. This is not to say it applies only in China (for sure North Korea and other countries should also lend an ear), but the power of the fiction loses momentum when extended to the broad state of human existence. To be clear, the same rationale applies to Western fiction. Some novels and stories comment on humanity at large, while others comment on specific aspects of a culture or society. Despite Liu’s urging, why would Chinese fiction—literary, science, or otherwise—be understood any differently? This is all to say there seems a bit of contradiction in what Liu urges versus the content of some of the stories and essays.

Despite my nitpicking, Invisible Planets remains one of the best anthologies of 2016. Curated, Ken Liu brings to the table a widely varied selection of quality stories that broaden the global conception of science fiction, simultaneously serving up insightful, colorful, and entertaining literature. Liu’s intentions of having the stories read at the human rather than Chinese level may occasionally ring false, but by and large the strength of the stories push such discussion to the background.

All originally published in Chinese within the decade of 2005 to 2015, the following are the thirteen stories and three essays anthologized in Invisible Planets:

Introduction: Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (by Ken Liu)
   Chen Qiufan
     The Year of the Rat
     The Fish of Lijiang
     The Flower of Shazui
   Xia Jia
      A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
      Tongtong’s Summer
      Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (previously unpublished)
  Ma Boyong
      The City of Silence
  Hao Jingfang
      Invisible Planets
      Folding Beijing
   Tang Fei
      Call Girl
   Cheng Jingbo
      Grave of the Fireflies
   Liu Cixin
      The CircleTangent
      Taking Care of God

  “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction” by Liu Cixin
  “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition” by Chen Qiufan
  “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” by Xia Jia


  1. Hi Jesse

    I am expecting my copy today so I will look at the discussions of individual stores after I read them but I was interested in your comments on the overall anthology. I will also look for some of the other anthologies you mentioned. I have been readings a number of current anthologies both Year's Best and themed, I picked up most of the Infinity series after reading your posts, and I am impressed with both the quality of the work and the diversity of the voices among many of the authors currently writing SF short stores.

    Happy Reading

    1. When you finish, you'll have to tell me which Infinity anthology you liked best - and why. ;)

  2. I might give this a try. But how's the translation and quality of prose?

    I looked at Liu Ciuxin's THREE BODY PROBLEM when it came out and found the first half-dozen pages of that offputting enough stylistically (translation by Ken Liu) that I put it back on the shelf. This, I presume, is better?

    1. I cannot speak to the translation as I've not read any of the stories in the original language. The prose, well, it depends on the story. I'm not a raving fan of Liu's own short stories, but as a translator he seems more savvy. To the point, the stories in Invisible Planets appear in a relative variety of styles. Some of this, naturally, is reflective of the source material, but overlall I do think Liu tried to match style with content. There are a couple stories produced by authors Liu claims are more literary, and indeed, the prose is more sophisticated - mind you, not as sophisticated as might be, but certainly more clever than the rather straight-forward nature of Liu Cixin's two stories. All in all I'd say your hopes will met depending on the story. Is there anything ground-breaking here? No - but that's nearly impossible to do in today's field.