Invisible Planets by Ken Liu
Published: Tor Books (Nov 1, 2016)
Posted: Goodreads (Oct 24, 2016)
(5 / 5)
Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation is a collection of Chinese speculative short fiction edited and translated by Ken Liu. A master of storytelling in his own right, Liu shares 13 stellar visions of the future by 7 of China’s top science fiction writers. It also features 3 essays that examine the role of sci-fi in modern China.
This collection includes stories from Chen Quifan, Xia Jia, Ma Boyong, Hao Jingfang, Tang Fei, Cheng Jingbo, and Liu Cixin. Almost all of the shorts in this anthology combine elements of China’s complex history, society, and locations with science fiction. But Invisible Planets isn’t just a collection of social commentaries. Each story is incredibly diverse in theme, storytelling approach, and symbolism. Some of the tales are optimistic while others paint the human condition in a darker light.
From elegantly crafted stories of wild fantasies to those with a stark, downtrodden realism, the sheer scope of this anthology is impressive. The stories below are some of my favorites in the anthology. I’ve also included a spoiler-lite summary of each of them.
“You want to hold on to the sand. But the harder you squeeze, the quicker the sand slips from the cracks between your fingers, until nothing is left.”
The Fish of Lijiang (Chen Quifan) – With beautiful and haunting descriptions of the once ancient city of Lijiang, this speculative story serves as a cautionary tale of progress. It’s set in a future China where technology is regularly integrated into the body and robots are everywhere. Blindly climbing the corporate ladder, a laborer leaves more than his peace of mind behind.
The Flower of Shazui (Chen Quifan) – Set in an alternate Shazui village on Shenzhen Bay, a black market augmented reality dealer and a sex worker cross paths. The exchange forever alters both their lives. Shenzhen’s real history is explored in Flower. The story plays off the establishment of the SEZ in Shenzhen in the 80s. The best part of Flower is the speculative tech (like AR goggles that use a target’s biometrics to serve up a complete dossier on them). This alternate Shazui is a place high tech and low life: a near-cyberpunk world of drones and hookers with hearts of gold.
A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight (Xia Jia) – With an excellent blend of sci-fi and science fantasy, Xia Jia introduces a world of ethereal beauty and sad realities. This is a story of a town in flux, one where our desire for “the new” has actual consequences. Without too many spoilers: a well written tale about a boy, his foster mother, and a land that time forgot.
Tongtong’s Summer (Xia Jia) – This is a heartwarming tale of a little girl and the high tech world around her. It features awesome technology – augmented reality, advanced robotics, and telepresent medical care – with excellent writing and powerful storytelling. Xia Jia nails the human component often missing from Sci-fi short stories.
In the war between people and the appropriate authorities, the final conclusion was the death of language.
The Silent City (Ma Boyong) – In a future authoritarian China, information is piped in through a State News Agency. All activity is curtailed to well-regulated online interactions. Computer virtualization is perverted: one is limited to running programs remotely through government approved servers. Disapproved words are censored and reported as spoken through pervasive technology. Yet a subversive group dedicated to social interaction is born. Ma’s short story is part social commentary and part dark looking glass. If you’re like me and enjoy stories about fighting the system, this blend of SF with realism is top tier.
Invisible Planets (Hao Jingfang) – This story of someone telling a child about various worlds and alien civilizations. The storytelling is above average and extremely creative. There’s plenty of foreshadowing and other mechanics at play. Without giving too much away, this is a reflexive tale about spinning stories and understanding oneself.
Folding Beijing (Hao Jingfang) – Lao Dao, a waste handler from Third Space, is forced to illegally travel to another space in this wild ride of desperation. This alternate version of the PRC’s capital has three unique city permutations: First Space, Second Space, and Third Space (the last is Lao’s home, dystopia complete with neon lights, dark skies and refuse). Time is split between the three states but they’re not equal. Lao must navigate all three of Beijing’s spaces to complete his quest. The descriptions of locations, combining the old and new, the mythic with the mundane, is well done. The city’s design is nothing short of remarkable.
The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition (Chen Qiufan) – Very rarely do we (non-Asian Americans) get an in-depth look at the culture of young people in China. In Torn Generation, Chen discusses the fixation young people have on making money, the economy and just having fun. Very little thought goes into the future and its possibilities. Chen’s fiction in Invisible Planets mirrors this disconnect by amplifying it and using it as a catalyst for change. His aim is to use sci-fi to help contemporary China create its own dreams and destiny once more.
What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese? (Xia Jia) – Saving the best for last, Xia Jia recounts the history of Science Fiction in China and discusses various writer’s approaches to writing in the genre. Perhaps more significantly, she discusses the evolution of the “Chinese Dream” expressed through science fiction: once of feeding into the nostalgia for the country’s ancient past and now embracing modernity and globalization.
While Invisible Planets includes stories previously published in online magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny, it’s well worth your time and investment. This anthology is a one-stop resource for quality speculative fiction and provides plenty of insight into Chinese sci-fi. With moving stories and powerfully written prose, this anthology is outstanding. 5/5
(This book was received in exchange for a fair and honest review)
You may also like this Ken Liu translation: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin.