Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of Broken Stars ed. by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets was one of the bright spots among speculative fiction anthologies and collections in 2017. Ken Liu bringing together a sampler of Chinese science fiction from some of its most popular writers, the effort was apparently a success beyond this blog as Liu re-upped for an informal sequel, expanding the West’s view into Chinese short stories with a broader spectrum of content in 2019’s Broken Stars.

A treatise on AI, particularly the Turing test which could help identify the break from robot intelligence, “Goodnight, Melancholy” by Xia Jia tells a wonderfully fragmented story that gets a bit heavy-handed with its Turing education, but rights itself the further it goes with a more subtle, indirect, and intelligent manner of presenting the subjectivity in the test, as it relates to a woman in the near-future possessing a kind of android-ish thing. Part of the Turing test based on human perception, Xia nicely gives the reader a chance to do the same.

An ambitious story that largely fills its boots, “Broken Stars” by Tang Fei tells of a high school girl from a semi-broken home, and the supernatural, science fiction-y backdrop that redeems her situation. Two brief, abstract stories by Han Song are featured in the anthology: “Submarines” and “Salinger and the Koreans”. Both obliquely political in nature, the first looks at China’s mass internal emigrations with a magic realist spin, while the second looks at the intentions of North Korea’s political agenda through the lens of The Catcher in the Rye—including all of the socio-personal baggage that comes with the novel. Science fantasy in a positive way, “Under a Dangling Sky” by Cheng Jingbo looks at a world not of our own that gives no hoots about which bookshelf it fall upon in a bookstore—interplanetary myth just as much as secondary world colonization. Maintaining a distance from extensive detail, this story of a young woman has a loose, dynamic atmosphere as a result, even if the ending seems relevant only to the world built.

While not artfully written, “Moonlight” by Liu Cixin is an interesting piece that transcends the science in science fiction. Ostensibly about a man who is contacted by his future self with ideas that will change humanity’s course to avoid a certain type of environmental downfall, the story only goes unpredictably from there. Where Liu could have gone utopianist, instead he takes the broader view—making the story all the more interesting for it. A brief piece on the dangers of introducing new technology on the market, “The New Year Train” by Hao Jingfang is told through the lens (no pun intended) of a reporter interviewing the owner of a new train line that has been lost in the space-time continuum.

A hilariously insightful combination of Chinese history and video games, “The First Emperor's Games” by Ma Boyong supposes that an ancient Chinese emperor had access to games like The Sims, Civilization, etc.—games that test the players ability to build a stable and happy populace. The emperor naturally perceiving the games to be flawed in some way given the rules for “winning”, Ma undermines the logic of of some leaders while highlighting an interesting aspect of modern games. A take on Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Anna Wu’s “Laba Porridge” version is a delightfully quotidian look at the “origin” of said meal, yet told in a way possible only in science fiction. A romance story shot through with the backwards arrow of Chinese history, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Bao Shu tells the life story of a man as he lives the major events of the past century of Chinese history in reverse. Melodrama made even more maudlin by the historical backdrops, it attempts to be political by tugging on the heart strings.

About a new piece of technology that allows people to see into the final five minutes of a person’s thoughts before they died, “The Brain Box” by Regina Kanyu Wang gives one widowed husband everything he wanted, but perhaps not in form upon her untimely death. Looking at the morality of mobile app development and the inherent predatory nature of much of it, Chen Qiufan’s “Coming of the Light” sees an app developer go full ethical circle when the app his company develops to enhance karma takes a bad public turn. Chen entirely switching gears structurally but not morally, “A History of Future Illnesses” portends to be a medical reference, highlighting a handful of interesting but disturbing social and psychological “illnesses” that develop in the future. Recognizable but esoteric in nature, Chen walks a fine line between the obvious and insightful, resulting in an engaging read.

Closing the anthology are three essays—three vectors into—the history and state of science fiction in China. From historical exposition to anecdotes (with a little hero worship thrown in) about early fan conventions, the three essays shed some light onto what the term has meant in China, and what it might mean today. Not intended to be incisive, they provide a broad overview, giving readers many places to jump off if they want to learn more. (Though, I had to laugh for a moment reading that a fanzine had a peak distribution of 1,200 people considering China has 1.4 billion…)

In the end, Broken Stars is another solid collection of Chinese sf translated into English. The title doesn’t seem to work with all of the anthology, and Liu again plays the “don’t read these stories as Chinese” card with one hand, even as the other hand writes the opposite, but regardless, the quality of the stories generally speaks for itself. Some are traditional sf stories regardless of country of origin (see Liu Cixin, Hao Jinfang, and Regina Kanyu Wang’s entries), some are more abstract in combining metaphor and reality (see Han Song and Zhang Ran’s), some are character stories (see Xia Jia and Tang Fei’s) some have roots in cultural specifics (see Anna Wu’s), and some have a fun poke at Chinese history (see Bao Shu and Ma Boyong’s). For reasons I can’t put my finger precisely, Invisible Planets still strikes me as the stronger anthology, perhaps only slightly. But for certain Broken Stars is the broader ranging. Along with including a larger number of authors, there is likewise a wider number of styles and approaches, which is engaging in its own right.

The following are the sixteen stories and three essays collected in Broken Stars:

Goodnight, Melancholy by Xia Jia
The Snow of Jinyang by Zhang Ran
Broken Stars by Tang Fei
Submarines by Han Song
Salinger and the Koreans by Han Song
Under a Dangling Sky by Cheng Jingbo
What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu
The New Year Train by Hao Jingfang
The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales by Fei Dao
Moonlight by Cixin Liu
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge by Anna Wu
The First Emperor's Games by Ma Boyong
Reflection by Gu Shi
The Brain Box by Regina Kanyu Wang
Coming of the Light by Chen Qiufan
A History of Future Illnesses by Chen Qiufan

Essay: A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction and Fandom by Regina Kanyu Wang
Essay: A New Continent for China Scholars: Chinese Science Fiction Studies by Mingwei Song
Essay: Science Fiction: Embarrassing No More by Fei Dao

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