Invisible Planets | Book Review

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Jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill. Photograph of spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage team.

Invisible Planets is a 2016 TOR publication. The thirteen short stories had been previously featured in short story publications like Clarkesworld, Uncanny, and Tor.com. The short stories are written by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. All the stories are translated by Ken Liu whose short story “The Paper Menagerie” is the first work of fiction, of any length, to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and who also translated The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy written by Liu Cixin.

Each author’s stories are preceded by a brief biographical note on the author. At the very end of the collection there is a series of non-fiction essays on Chinese Science Fiction. I have never read any contemporary Chinese literature. Like most people in the West, I was introduced to a few translated fairy tales, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and translated philosophies like I Ching, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. We are missing out on much of China’s contemporary artistic output due to lacking translated works. As a reader, I feel embarrassed for how little I know of China’s contemporary literature in general, let alone specific genres. I had only heard of Liu Cixin because of the Three-Body-Problem which I still have not read. Ken Liu urges the reader in the introduction to read the stories as they are without trying to morph them into what we think Chinese literature should be. He writes:

“Given the realities of China’s politics and its uneasy relationship with the West, it is natural for Western readers encountering Chinese science fiction to see it through the lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics…I would urge the reader to resist such temptation. Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous.”

He continues:

“Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

For instance, Liu urges us not to read Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” as a critique of the Chinese education system and the labour market. As I was reading the story I couldn’t help but smile through several parts like this one:

“I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation.”

I think that problem is quite universal right now. This thought is prevalent here in the West as well. That is just a small example of the warnings Liu gives us when reading contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in translation. Read it like it is, and don’t think of any of it as a critique of China alone.

I found the stories to be varied in content. Qiufan’s science fiction is more about dialogue and character with very subtle airs of science fiction, while some of the later stories are hard science fiction, or futuristic. This book is an introduction to Chinese Sci-fi and it’s well-put together. Bits of non-fictions, introductions, and summaries contextualise the sci-fi stories and give the reader a good overview of Chinese Science Fiction.

I would strongly recommend this to anyone interested in exploring literature from a different country, expanding one’s horizons (quite literally for some stories), and for those interested in Science Fiction. I have personally become mesmerised by both Ken Liu and Cixin Liu that I am very much looking forward to reading their other works.

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