Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 383 p. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Jan-Feb 2017.

 Invisible Planets cover

Chinese SF has been making something of a splash in the wider world of late. This volume – containing thirteen stories (bar one all award winners in China) by seven authors, four women and three men, along with three essays on the form’s Chinese incarnation – provides the opportunity to delve into its ripples but perhaps dangles an invitation to a question. Do these examples of Chinese SF exhibit traits which are specifically Chinese in nature? Is it possible to discern characteristics unique to a culture’s literary output and, within that, to its SF?

In the broad sense, surely yes. Russian literature for example has a very different feel to that written in English. So too its SF. But does Invisible Planets spread its net widely enough to allow any such judgement? (I myself, though, having noted a qualitative difference in the broad sweep of US SF as opposed to that from the UK – which was then all but solely English – and so deliberately set out to write a novel that could only have arisen from a Scottish background, might be the wrong person to ask.)

In his introduction Ken Liu specifically warns us not to expect the contents here to be monolithic, that SF from China will be as diverse in nature as that from anywhere else, and cautions us that the stories he has chosen may not be representative; though he does note that SF from Singapore, the UK and the US “are all quite different” from each other, even if there are “further divisions within and across such geographical boundaries.”

He offers us “science fiction realism” from Chen Qiufan, the self-proclaimed “porridge SF” (neither “hard” nor “soft” – the terms apparently have slightly different meanings in China where hard refers to the inclusion of more technical material) of Xia Jia, “wry, political metaphors” from Ma Boyong, the “surreal imagery” of Tang Fei, “dense language-pictures” from Cheng Jingbo, the “fabulism and sociological speculation” of Hao Jingfang and Cixin Liu’s “hard science-fictional imagination”. Apart from Cixin Liu, most of the authors (whose names are all rendered in Chinese style, family name first) are “rising stars” and all work in professions.

The fiction starts with three stories from Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan.) The Year of the Rat sees an unemployed graduate forced to join the Rodent-Control Force dealing with the genetically engineered NeoratsTM infesting the Chinese countryside. In The Fish of Lijiang, people exposed to time dilation or compression require occasional readjustment which they obtain by meeting up with those of the yin tendency to their yang. Body films, patches which express personality in response to muscular tension or temperature, feature in The Flower of Shazui which reworks the old tale of a man fascinated by a prostitute who is beyond his reach. She nevertheless requires his help.

Xia Jia also makes three appearances. In the at times dream-like A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight foundling Ning is the sole living inhabitant of a village of ghosts whose days as a tourist attraction are gone. He nevertheless does not age beyond seven. Tongtong’s Summer sees Tongtong’s grandfather needing care after a fall. This comes in the shape of Ah Fu, a robot controlled from afar via a telepresence body-suit. Soon grandfather is interacting remotely with others in his position. Packed with invocations of opposites and apparently inspired by the poem “With Dreams as Horses” by Hai Zi, Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (a story original to this book) sees the dragon-horse awaken after centuries to a world long bereft of humans. It meets a bat and they travel together telling each other stories.

Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence might be taken to be a reflection of Chinese experience in its depiction of a time when web access and everyday discourse is restricted to only allowable words but its explicit reference to Orwell’s 1984 (and implicit one to Fahrenheit 451) implies a wider relevance. The inevitable attempts to circumscribe the rules lead to an ever narrowing list of healthy words. Marring this slightly was that some aspects of the story were seen from our frame of reference rather than its.

Hao Jingfang has two contributions. Invisible Planets uses a Scheherazade type storyteller (without the jeopardy) describing fantastical planets and their inhabitants to suggest how both interactions with others and experiencing stories can change us. Her Hugo Award winning Folding Beijing sees that city – out to the sixth ring road – as a kind of time share, with three Spaces taking turns in occupying the ground over two days before the cycle recurs. During two such Changes Third Space denizen Lao Dao, wishing to earn enough money for his daughter to attend kindergarten, makes the dangerous journey to take a message to the less crowded and much wealthier First Space.

Xiaoyi is the fifteen year-old titular character in Call Girl by Tang Fei. It isn’t sex she sells, though, but stories related to her ability to manipulate space and time. Cheng Jingbo’s Grave of the Fireflies is an almost indescribable admix of fairy tale – princesses, magicians – and end of the universe SF – the stars are going out – in five sequential sections headed three successively apart days in February yet spanning centuries.

We round off with two stories from Liu Cixin. The Circle is a reworking of a chapter from his Hugo winning novel The Three Body Problem. An ancient Chinese mathematician develops a binary calculating machine utilising soldiers carrying flags. In Taking Care of God two billion members of the God civilisation which created the conditions for life on Earth and oversaw its development are deposited on the planet’s surface from a horde of ageing spaceships. In exchange for the Gods’ knowledge their wellbeing is catered for by billeting each of them on a family. Inevitably tensions ensue. Their science turns out to be too far advanced to be intelligible and their daily habits tend to forgetfulness. There are echoes here of Aldiss’s Heresies of the Huge God, Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and a touch of Leinster’s The Greks Bring Gifts. (Whether Liu was aware of, or even intended, these cannot be judged from a distance.)

The three concluding essays delve into various aspects of Chinese SF. Liu Cixin’s “Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” covers SF’s century-long history in China, its original incarnation optimistic, its later role in the People’s Republic era where it was seen as being only for children, to be educative about technology, the startling absence of Communist Utopias within its purview, its new-found literary credentials and confidence, all as a lead-in to explaining the origins of the pessimistic vision imbuing his trilogy.

Chen Qiufan’s “The Torn Generation” contrasts the anxiety of the younger generation with the thoughtlessness of the older. “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and ugliness without resorting to science fiction.” These are not strictures necessarily confined to China.

In the final essay, where Xia Jia tries to answer the question asked of her at a convention “What Makes Chinese SF Chinese?” she covers some of the same historical background as Liu Cixin, saying the breakaway from science-popularisation was motivated by binary oppositions such as China-the West, underdeveloped-developed, tradition-modernity, and concludes that while the Chinese SF community is full of internal differences she does find some commonality as the stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience, but, “Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.” Alternative futures. Any SF reader will drink to that.

But it’s the stories that matter. All here work well as SF. Their characters behave as characters do, with love, jealousy, resentment, tenacity, fear, and loathing. Apart from references to aspects of Chinese daily life and culture they could easily have originated from non-Chinese sources. Taken in all, however, I did note a tendency to didacticism, a leaning towards the fantastical, an awareness of contrasting opposites, an air of detachment. None of that would make them uniquely Chinese, though, and whether or not Chinese SF really is a creature all to itself, on this evidence it’s certainly worth reading.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the fiction written in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all quite different” (is all quite different,) interpretive (interpretative,) one of the China’s most elite colleges (one of China’s,) maw for mouth rather than stomach, Xian Quan (Xiao Quan,) hid (hidden,) “When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday. (Only if he’d started on a Sunday.) The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight, (is slightly clumsy; balanced in weight?) “has to transfer buses three times to get there” (has to change buses? Has to take three different buses?) “archers loosened volleys from their bows” (loosed volleys.)”There were a total” (there was a total.)

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