Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation
Translated by Ken Liu;
Edited by Ken Liu
Cover Artist: Spiral galaxy M81 (detail) by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765384195
Date: 01 November 2016 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Traditionally, translated science fiction and fantasy does not do well in the United States. Even though science fiction readers say they enjoy reading about alien cultures, they do not want to seem to work at understanding real foreign cultures here on Earth, with the exception of anime fans, many of whom become ardent Japanophiles. This has changed recently with many science fiction publications, especially Clarkesworld buying and translating foreign stories. A Chinese novel, The Three-Body Problem, written by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu (no relation) even won the Hugo Award.
Ken Liu, who will be Guest of Honor at Capclave 2017, has been in the forefront of this movement to share Chinese stories with American readers. Not only has he translated The Three-Body Problem and the third book in the trilogy, he also has translated a large number of stories from Chinese into English, including the Hugo-winning "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang. Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation collects thirteen of his translations including "Folding Beijing" and another story by Jingfang, two by Cixin Liu, and others by up and coming Chinese authors. In addition, the book includes three short essays on Chinese science fiction. Ken Liu writes that he hopes the anthology will introduce English readers to China's "vibrant, diverse science fiction culture".
In the introduction, Ken Liu warns that defining Chinese science fiction is as complicated as defining American science fiction. He especially warns against interpreting China's science fiction as promoting Western views of Chinese politics, writing "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. Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China". And yet, many of these stories do seem to have political messages and even Liu admits "there is a long tradition in China of voicing dissent and criticism through the use of literary metaphor".
For instance, "The City of Silence" by Ma Boyong is about censorship both online and offline. The State has shifted from listing forbidding words to listing permitted words, fewer and fewer each day, with each person required to wear a portable language-filtering machine. However it is also an interesting story about communication and small acts of rebellion. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang is about class separation as the lower, middle, and upper classes occupy the city during different shifts. At the same time, there is character growth. "Taking Care of God" by Cixin Liu has the alien beings who created Humanity returning to Earth demanding that their children take care of them in their old age. Still, this is saved from being a message story by the growing relationship between Qiusheng and the God installed in his home. "The Year of the Rat" by Chen Qiufan has the Chinese army draft unemployed college graduates to try to fight intelligent (artificially uplifted) rats. What could be a political story, with overtones of class differences, the failure of education, and the unnecessary nature of the war, also turns into a story of a young man's maturation and confronting a bully.
Other stories are less political. "The Fish of Lijiang" by Chen Quifan shows how everything is becoming artificial and humans are mere lab mice. "The Flower of Shazui" by Chen Quifan is more of a traditional adventure story, but even here there are concerns about how valuing technology turns people into puppets. "A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" by Xia Jia is a story, rich in atmosphere and metaphor, about what it means to be human. "Tongton's Summer" by Xia Jia deals with how to help the elderly still feel useful, and contrasts Grandpa with the young Tongtong. "Call Girl" by Tang Fei is about a prostitute of stories, rather than of her body. "The Circle" by Cixin Liu is an excerpt from The Three-Body Problem--the sequence where an advisor promises a king the secret to immortality if he can use the army as a calculating machine. This stands alone without the reader needing to know anything from the rest of the novel.
A few stories are hard to describe. "Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse" by Xia Jia features the creatures who exist in a world without humanity. The fun here is the strange landscape and growing relationship between the mechanical dragon-horse and a talking bat. The title story, "Invisible Planets" by Hao Jingfang at first appears to be just descriptions of various planets and their histories, without any real plot. Gradually, however, through insertions of dialogue, the story becomes about how the act of sharing a story transforms both the teller and the listener. "Grave of the Fireflies" by Cheng Jingbo could be a story of the far future with the remnants of humanity passing through the Door into Summer as the stars begin to go out. At the same time, it is a sad fantasy about a princess and her knight, the Magician of Weightless City.
Invisible Planets is a must read for fans of science fiction stories who are curious about Chinese science fiction. It's also an excellent read for fans of high-quality stories from any source. Judging by recent Hugo wins for Ken Liu's translations, a lot of readers enjoy his prose and are do not feel that his role as translator, rather than author, is an impediment to enjoying it. Recommended.