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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.)

The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 460 p. £14.99 Reviewed for Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

 The Paper Menagerie cover

In the preface to this collection Liu says he doesn’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction – or, indeed, between genre and mainstream. For him fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over (an irreducibly random and senseless) reality; some stories simply literalise their metaphors a bit more explicitly. His position is borne out by this collection’s contents as many of the stories straddle those boundaries. Most are informed and coloured by the author’s Chinese heritage but the first few are more conventional fare.

The Bookmaking Habits of Selected Species is not about gambling but rather the ways in which different species (every sentient species it would seem) produce and consume books. In State Change Rina goes through life keeping her soul frozen in case she loses it – and her life with it. The Perfect Match reads a bit like a 1984 for the digital age. Tilly’s algorithm makes suggestions for you, finds partners for you, remembers for you. Its parent company Centillion’s mission statement is “to arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race.” Tilly, however, doesn’t switch off.

The only story in the book with no real fantastical content is The Literomancer, who is a Mr Kan, and can tell fortunes via calligraphy. He befriends Lilly, the daughter of a US secret service operative. In 1950s Taiwan that turns out to be dangerous.

Good Hunting is set in late 19th century China, and comes over as a fantasy and steampunk cross wherein a werevixen and her former hunter’s lives become intermittently intertwined. The inventor of the titular technology in Simulacrum disgusts his daughter by using his invention in a debauched way. After their estrangement he keeps a copy of her childhood self, which despite her mother’s entreaties she still finds off-putting. The Regular sees us in gumshoe territory. Police investigators have software to inhibit their emotions and, to access their data for use in blackmail, a serial killer is targeting only those upmarket call-girls who have had security cameras built into their eyes. The police aren’t interested and (the rather programmatically named) ex-cop Ruth Law takes the case.

Multiple award winner The Paper Menagerie gains its title from the collection of origami animals the protagonist’s mother, a mail-order bride from China, made and breathed life into. As he grows, her lack of integration to life in the US embarrasses him so that he neglects his Chinese roots. Partly written in the second person An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition deals with a project to use the gravitational lensing of the sun to search for extraterrestrial signals. This necessitates sending the receiver (and the humans to operate it, one of whom is “your” mother) to a point 550 AU away. The Waves is a strange beast wherein the occupants of a generation starship face a dilemma when life-prolonging technology becomes accessible. This on its own would have been enough for most authors but Liu goes further. When the ship reaches 61 Virginis the rest of humanity has got there before them and its members are so changed new choices must be made. The Japanese narrator of Mono No Aware (Japanese for the sense of the transience of all things) is faced with a threat to the solar sails of the generation starship carrying the last remnants of humanity fleeing from the destruction of Earth.

The longest story in the collection, All The Flavours, has little fantastical content bar the traditional Chinese tales with which it is interspersed in its account of the incoming of Chinese workers to 19th century Idaho and their (ultimately successful) attempts at fitting in. Boasting a Formosan narrator, A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is an alternative history wherein Japan proposed the project in response to the 1930s Great Depression. This being mainly an endeavour of Shōwa era Japan, regrettable incidents occur during its construction.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King features a peasant lawyer (or vexatious litigant according to taste) who can see and converse with the demon spirit Monkey King. His coming into knowledge of a suppressed book describing the atrocities of the Yangzhou massacre a century before constricts his options. In The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary the discovery of quantum-entangled Bohm-Kirino particles allows the past to be witnessed but the process of doing so destroys the evidence. Its inventor wants to demonstrate to the world the realities of Unit 731, the site of Japanese medical experiments on prisoners during World War 2 in Harbin province. Politics remains politics though.

Liu’s stories are never less than well-crafted, he has an excellent range, and a clear eye for the subtleties of human relationships. You will read worse.

The following remarks did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- a team trace out (a team traces out,) “Eliot could not have written, and the world would have understood, Four Quartets without the scent of Eliot’s soul,” (either “not” is missing before “have understood” or the tense is awry – “nor the world understood” instead?) “so much of their lives are lived in..” (so much is lived in…,) over this shoulder (his shoulder,) to not ask (not to ask,) “the jade from which the cups were made had an inner glow to them” (the jade had an inner glow to it,) “all you’ve said simply show” (all you’ve said simply shows,) one of the older man (men,) of of (just “of”,) accused with murder (accused of murder,) Femal (Female? But this was in an extract of a poem in olde style language,) sprung (sprang,) “the flight of neutrons are determined” (the flight is,) “about ten years in age” (of age,) sheepherding (okay; shepherding has a different ring to it,) “a 120 miles per hour” (120 means one hundred and twenty; there is no need to preface it with “a”,) United Stat es (United States,) “more and more evidence … have come to life” (has come to life,) “reformed through ‘re-education’, They were released” (they.)

The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem, Head of Zeus, 2015, 400 p, translated from the Chinese 三體, Chongqing Publishing Group 2006, by Ken Liu. The Dark Forest, Head of Zeus, 2015, 512 p, translated from the Chinese 黑暗森林, Chongqing Publishing Group 2008, by Joel Martinsen. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015.

 The Three-Body Problem cover

Barring Verne and the genre’s very beginnings, non-Anglophone SF has historically had a low profile in its heartlands. Some Eastern European SF did manage to filter across the language barrier during the Iron Curtain days but was usually a niche commodity. That situation has recently begun to change markedly with SF emanating from outwith the usual source countries. Though not all from non-Anglophone sources, in the past few years I have been able to sample SF originating from Japan, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria and other former colonial states. Now, aided by Puppygate and its unintended consequence of a best novel Hugo Award for Cixin Liu, his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy looks set to raise the profile of Chinese Science Fiction; which on this evidence comprises hard SF, red in tooth and claw (though arguably not red in political terms.)

The first book, The Three-Body Problem, begins during the Cultural Revolution when Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, a physicist unwilling to bend to the doctrine that the theories which underpin his subject are reactionary, at the hands of Red Guards. Ye herself is sent to a labour camp and further blots her copybook when she reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and pens a letter to the authorities about the environmental depredations resulting from the work of her labour corps but due to her capabilities as a physicist she is assigned to Red Coast Base, an apparently military endeavour.

There is then a jump of forty years in the narrative and we are plunged into a world where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is co-opted into a Battle Command Centre – a committee whose members comprise not only Chinese but also NATO generals plus the unorthodox but effective cop Shi Qiang. The world faces a threat (at this point unspecified) related to the fact that physicists are killing themselves as their experimental results are not consistent, leading them to the conclusion that physics varies from place to place and so does not exist. Shi Qiang warns Wang always to look behind the surfaces of things to find the deeper connections.

Strange things begin to happen to Wang; he sees a countdown on his photographs and then on his eyes. This stops when he ceases his research. His wider investigations lead him to an online game at www.3body.net, the playing of which requires a haptic feedback suit, and which is set on a curious world with unreliable sunrises and sunsets, Stable and Chaotic Eras, mysterious flying stars and inhabitants who can dehydrate and rehydrate according to the conditions. Each time he logs into it the game’s history has moved on. He works out the planet has three suns whose orbits form an inherently chaotic configuration. This is Trisolaris. In one of the novel’s structural problems the relevance of this game to the ongoing threat is not revealed till later.

We subsequently find Red Coast was actually a site for SETI investigations and Ye Wenjie had used its antenna – via the sun as a signal amplifier – to send a message to the universe. A reply containing a warning of invasion if Earth responds came from only four light years away and therefore must have originated on Alpha Centauri. The disillusioned Ye, convinced that humanity’s relationship to evil is like the iceberg to the ocean (made of the same material) ignores the warning. Meanwhile a secretive Earth Trisolaran Organisation, ETO, has recruited devotees via 3-body and communicated with the Trisolarans who have developed Project Sophon, the unfolding of protons into different dimensions, to shoot a quantum entangled pair at Earth to completely ruin scientific research and seal off the progress of human science. The Alpha Centauri system of course contains three suns.

The trouble is we are told a lot of this via the medium of 3-body and transcripts of Trisolaran transmissions – most of which content is dry as dust. Human interactions are sidelined, the main instigator of ETO, Mike Evans, advocate of Pan-Species Communism, barely appears in the novel and the chronology of the events is disjointed. While Wang’s nanomaterials background comes in useful in obtaining the Trisolaran transcripts the incident concerned is really the only one which occurs in the novel’s here-and-now.

In his translator’s afterword Ken Liu refers to Chinese fiction having different emphases and preferences “compared to what American readers expect”. Whether this explains the oddness of The Three-Body Problem’s structure the non-Chinese reader cannot tell. And nothing is resolved, the whole is merely a prologue.

 The Dark Forest cover

In The Dark Forest the narrative is much more linear. Earth has 450 years to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion but is now riddled with sophons, making all transactions transparent to Trisolaris. The UN has set up a Planetary Defence Council which initiates the Wallfacer Project whereby four individuals are given more or less absolute power to command resources to further the anti-Trisolaran plans devised in their own minds, (the sophons cannot read thoughts). One character muses, “I wonder whether we could find a form of communication that only humans can comprehend, but which the sophons never will. That way, humanity can be free of sophon monitoring…… A gaze or a smile can transmit so much information!”

The first part of the book follows the progress of the Wallfacers’ plans, the setting up and development of Earth’s space forces and the societal changes which take place under the Trisolaran threat. “Behind them was the Golden Age, the good times that began in the 1980s and ended with the Crisis. Ahead of them, humanity’s arduous years were about to unfold.”

The disparity in force between Earth and Trisolaris is the biggest in human history, defeatism the worst enemy – especially in the space forces. Escapism, the thought of leaving Earth for the wide blue yonder, appeals to some but is soon made illegal as who goes and who remains involves basic human values no matter who gets to leave – elites, the rich, or ordinary people. So long as some will be left behind, it means the collapse of humanity’s ethical value system. One character says, “The fundamental axiom of economics is the human mercenary instinct. Without that assumption, the entire field would collapse. There isn’t any fundamental axiom for sociology yet, but it might be even darker than economics. A small number of people could fly off into space, but if we knew it would come to that, why would we have bothered in the first place?”

There are still occasional forays into 3-body where we find Trisolaris has designated a Wallbreaker to each Wallfacer, to frustrate or reveal their plans.

Curiously – or is this an endemic Chinese habit? – smoking seems to be commonplace in this future even when we have again jumped in time to year 205 of the Crisis Era, after a minor Dark Age called the Great Ravine has more than halved Earth’s population. Most cities are now underground.

The narrative contains a few potential sense of wonder moments. Giant space telescopes, the seeding of space with oil film, “mined” from Neptune’s rings, to reveal the tracks of Trisolaran probes, a space battle which came over eerily like an updated version of E E ‘Doc’ Smith, and other Science Fictional concepts such as the technology to fix beliefs in the human brain. However, there are times when the info dumping can be intrusive and strange interludes such as when Liu allows his characters to discourse on the writing process, “The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them. But today’s practitioners of literature have lost that creativity,” and the nature of the object of love, “not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination.”

Key to the book are two maxims, “Survival is the primary need of civilization” and, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant,” plus the related concepts of chains of suspicion and technology explosion.

The Dark Forest bristles with SF ideas while remixing the tropes of First Contact, Generation Starship and disaster tale but these elements sometimes sit uneasily with the stories of the humans involved. Its title’s metaphor encapsulates a bleak explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Both these novels contain footnotes, mostly to explain specifically Chinese references. Footnotes can be a delight but SF readers are used to neologisms – sometimes unexplained. Their necessity in either book is therefore arguable – and in the cases of Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, tokamaks, the strong nuclear interaction and Lagrange point, surely superfluous.

However, together they both suggest Chinese SF has been neglected in the wider world for far too long.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- ahold (a hold,) meet-up (meeting,) to not have heard(not to have heard,) we get tori (correct for the plural of torus) but tetrahedrons instead of tetrahedra, in a 3body argument with “Liebniz”, “Newton” is heard to refer to calculus (Isaac Newton called his system fluxions, calculus was Liebniz’s name for these mathematical functions,) sunken (sunk,) Wallfacers (Wallfacer, singular,) widow (window,) in The Dark Forest the base is called Red Shore (in The Three-Body Problem it was Red Coast,) gasses (gases,) “you only would have” (you would only have,) automatons (automata,) Jupiter is referred to as a liquid planet – it’s a gas giant, impassible (impassable,) shape of sword (shape of a sword,) 120gs (a measurement unit’s abbreviation subsumes its plural so 120g,) miniscule (minuscule,) become (became,) torturous (the context implies tortuous,) off of, use to (used to, x 3.)

Interzone Review Time Again

 Invisible Planets cover

Two months seem to come round very quickly.

This time it’s back to Chinese SF with Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu. I’m looking forward to it. The cover shown on the page on the link above is the US one from Tor. I’ve got the UK publication from Head of Zeus.

I’ve been given a bit more leeway with this one. 1400 words instead of the usual 800.

Interzone 264 May-Jun 2016

Interzone 264 cover

Jonathan McAlmont1 discusses Claire Vaye Watkins’s Good Fame Citrus on the way to concluding that capitalism is similar to a cult. Nina Allan examines film adaptations of J G Ballard novels. In the Bookzone I review Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.
In the fiction:-
Starlings2 by Tyler Keevil is couched in the form of a recorded message from a mother to her child, Colum, who is one of the special children designed to leave an Earth doomed to a runaway greenhouse effect by the malfunction of the supposed remedy, the Hadron-Karensky Reactor, for a new start on another planet. Elegiac and
From the (almost) sublime to the hard to credit. Breadcrumbs3 by Malcolm Devlin posits an apartment block and a city suddenly overwhelmed by plant outgrowths and people beginning to change into animals. All of these could merely be the imaginings of viewpoint character Ellie, though.
James van Pelt’s Mars, Aphids, and Your Cheating Heart4 is told from the perspective of a God, who is addressed as “you.” Otherwise the only science-fictional elements it contains are mentions of an ice sheet on Pluto and the movement of a dust grain on Mars (with subsequent avalanche). The story is about a private eye who warms to the subject of his investigation.
Lifeboat5 by Rich Larson. Like many others before it the planet Lazy Susan is threatened with destruction by “synthetics”. A man who helps “rescue” inhabitants from these situations (for money) is faced with a dilemma over rescuing a woman carrying an unusual hybrid fœtus.
The Tower Princesses6 by Gwendolyn Kiste. The titular princesses – whose means of selection are obscure, the process is said to happen overnight – are caged (in materials of various sorts) and have to negotiate life within their restriction. Narrator Mary falls for one of them. The metaphor here is a little overstrained.

Pedant’s corner:- 1Watkins’ (Watkins’s,) “a group of activists are trying to convince” (is trying,) “the group positions itself on the edge of the dune sea and rearrange their vehicles” (“group” agrees with the first verb and not the second, “itself” is not in agreement with “their” so; rearranges its vehicles.) 2birth is used as a verb, anaesthiologist (that would be an anaesthetist, then.) Less respiratory problems (fewer,) “He told me ‘It doesn’t matter now’.” (That should be “He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter now.’”,) phased (fazed.) “He had not wept or showed any sign of emotions (nor shown.) 3”from the where she had lain” (no “the” required,) jimmy open (jemmy,) 4Written in USian – ladybug, sidewalk, skeptical, on the weekends, check (for cheque,) behavior – plus a “soundless avalanche” on Mars (Mars has an atmosphere; there will be sound,) “He must been shot” (must have been,) Tiggs’ (Tiggs’s,) cracks the entire length (cracks [along] its entire length.) 5Written in USian; “poofy” in the sense of voluminous (a usage I had never come across before. It’s not the first meaning that occurs to a Briton.) “That thing is not going to breach right.” (In the context of a birth; so “breech”?) ‘I’m smelling alkaline and vomit’ (alkaline is an adjective [cf acidic,] the noun is alkali.) 6Written in USian.

Hugo Awards 2016

These were announced at the 74th Worldcon, MidAmeriCon II, last Saturday.

BEST NOVEL The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

BEST NOVELLA Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

BEST NOVELETTE Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu

BEST SHORT STORY Cat Pictures Please by Naomi Kritzer

Of these I have read only Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, see here.

I have no idea whether any of these were Sad (or even Rabid) Puppy nominations – in the cases of Folding Beijing and Binti at least I would be inclined to doubt it – but “No Award” appeared only once in the full list this year.

Latest Interzone Stuff

 The Paper Menagerie cover
 Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights cover

On Monday morning Interzone’s issue 264 dropped through the letter box. This one contains two of my reviews, a normal length one of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories and a shorter one of City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Meanwhile, waiting for me on my return from the continent was a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, review to be delivered by the end of the month.

The Paper Menagerie (and other stories)

 The Paper Menagerie and other stories cover

My latest review book for Interzone has arrived.

It is a book of stories by US author of Chinese descent, Ken Liu. The collection is called The Paper Menagerie and other stories. The review is to appear in Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

Despite his award winning status (US SF awards for short fiction tend to pass my attention by) I was not previously familiar with Liu’s work in his own right but he did translate Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem which I reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015, in conjunction with Cixin Liu’s follow-up The Dark Forest (though that was translated by Joel Martinsen.) That joint review will appear here in due course.

Twenty-First Century Science Fiction edited by David G Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Robinson, 2013, 572 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Twenty-First Century Science Fiction cover

The book cover and spine has 21st Century but the title page Twenty-First Century. The editors choices were made from those writers whose rise to prominence came after 1999 – in a world where they say SF is no longer marginal but a part of the cultural landscape. So to the stories.

In Vandana Singh’s Infinities Abdul Karim is fascinated by mathematics. Visions of beings he calls farishte and sees out of the corners of his eyes lead him to ponder the variety of mathematical infinities and the intersection between transcendental numbers and primes. But life wears him down and his glimpse of the connections does not mesh with the troubles of a divided India. Rogue Farm by Charles Stross is set in a depopulated future and features trees which can store nitrate (effectively making them rockets/bombs) and collective farms composed of several people melded into some sort of tank-like vehicle. I know it was originally published in a US magazine but it’s located in Cumbria yet not only the prose but also the dialogue – with a few exceptions – was written in USian. The exceptions were some unconvincing “ayup”s and a sudden splattering of “Northern” speech in the second last paragraph.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Gambler sees an exiled Laotian struggle to get enough click-bait on his news stories, Neal Asher’s Strood features more or less beneficent invading aliens and their pets, which have unusual eating habits. In Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky, Adriana seeks love from and marries a robot called Lucian. Things go wrong when she lets Lucian have free will and their adopted daughter begins to believe she’s a robot. “The Tale of the Wicked” by John Scalzi is an updated version of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories when the brains of two spaceships in a hot pursuit start to communicate. Bread and Bombs by M Rickert is a post-apocalypse, post twin towers, tale where no-one travels by air, indeed any sighting of an aeroplane is accompanied by fear, and outsiders are treated with suspicion.

Taking its inspiration from a Biblical text and the Uncertainty Principle, Tony Ballantyne’s The Waters of Meribah is set in a universe shrunk to only tens of miles across where a group of scientists is engaged in a bizarre experiment to create an alien in order to break out again. Tk’Tk’Tk by David D Levine features the experiences of a hereditary salesman on a planet inhabited by excessively polite aliens. He comes to an epiphany, as you do. Genevieve Valentine’s The Nearest Thing is the closest to a human an artificial entity can get but the process is neither morally nor emotionally simple for its software designer. In Ian Creasey’s Erosion the comparison evoked by its title is perhaps a touch over-egged in his tale of an augmented human about to leave for the stars out for a last hike along the North Yorkshire coast. Marissa Lingen’s The Calculus Plague tells of the beginnings of transfer of memories by viral infection. One of our Bastards is Missing by Paul Cornell is set in a future where early eighteenth century Great Powers have lasted into the space age, the balance of power is kept steady but they still plot against each other.

A damaged war machine, the last of its platoon, roams the seashore in Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, collecting material to make memorial necklaces for the fallen. Finistera by David Moles is set on a giant planet with a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere where floating creatures as large as mountains form homes for people and exploitable resources for the less scrupulous. In Mary Robinette Kowal’s Evil Robot Monkey an augmented chimpanzee wants only to make pottery; but humans – especially schoolchildren – remain humans. The junior of The Education of Junior Number Twelve by Madeline Ashby is the twelfth offspring of a kind of self-replicating android, designed so as not to allow harm to humans. They make perfect lovers though. Even if humans themselves remain as messed up as ever. Toy Planes by Tobias S Buckell sees a Caribbean island join the space-faring nations. Ken Liu’s The Algorithms of Love is curiously reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon in its tale of a designer of truly interactive dolls coming to believe she herself, and all humans, are merely reacting to inbuilt instructions. The Albian Message by Oliver Morton speculates on just exactly what is contained in a pyramid left by aliens in the Trojan Asteroids hundreds of millions of years ago while Karl Schroeder’s To Hie From Far Cilenia supposes layers of “cities” – or at least organised groupings of people – only existing in a kind of online virtual reality parallel to the real world. Brenda Cooper’s Savant Songs is about the search by a brilliant (but socially awkward) female physicist for her counterparts in the multiverse of worlds. Ikiryoh by Liz Williams is reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas in that the eponymous child is the repository of all the darkness that would otherwise be present in the goddess who rules. The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka is set in a world where Darwinism was disproved in the 1950s by dating techniques. Yet on the Indonesian island of Flores unusual bones have been discovered in a cave. The protagonist’s conclusion sticks neatly to the logic of his world.

According to Catherynne M Valente’s How to Become a Mars Overlord each solar system has its own Red Planet and the author provides a stepwise guide to its overlordship but the piece overall is less of a story than a disquisition. In Daryl Gregory’s Second Person, Present Tense Therese has taken an overdose of a drug called Zen, which alters her persona. Her parents don’t accept this. Third Day Lights by Alaya Dawn Johnson features a shape-shifting demon and a human looking for the afterlife of the afterlife. James L Cambias’s Balancing Accounts has a robotic/AI protagonist plying a living for its owners by trading in the Saturn system. An unusual cargo brings problems. A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel by Yoon Ha Lee is another disquisitive story about various different cultures’ star drives. Hannu Rajaniemi’s His Master’s Voice stars a dog (and, yes, it’s called Nipper) seeking the return of its master who has been “condemned to the slow zone for three hundred and fourteen years” for illegally producing copies of himself and, since Rajaniemi sojourned for a while in Edinburgh, could just perhaps have been inspired (a bit) by the tale of Greyfriars Bobby. Plotters and Shooters by Kage Baker is set on a space station dedicated to spotting and destroying Earth threatening asteroids. The station’s hierarchies are disrupted by a new arrival. In The Island by Peter Watts a never-ending mission to seed the universe with jump gates threatens the existence of a millimetre thin organism surrounding its sun like a gossamer Dyson sphere. Escape to Other Worlds With Science Fiction by Jo Walton is set in a world where not only did the New Deal fail but the Second World War did not occur as we know it. By 1960 the US is becoming fascistic. Cory Doctorow’s Chicken Little posits a future where the rich are utterly cut-off from even the wealthy but a drug called Clarity can enable true assessment of risk to take place.

On the whole, strong stuff. There is enough here to suggest that SF is a vigorous culture still.

Pedant’s corner:- “the cluster of competing stories are growing” (the cluster is growing,) metastized (metastasised – I have also substituted s for the USian z,) remittance (remission,) minutia (minutiae,) her sisters’ ability to overcome her fear of their father (their fear?) rung (rang,) “I hate to come out of that jump (I’d hate to,) none of the …. have (none has,) a they as an antecedent to an it, and the killed (and killed,) the architecture of the brains are different (the architecture is different,) a yearning gap (the context suggests yawning gap,) “where his regiment were dining” (his regiment was dining,) a Queen Mother is addressed as “Your Royal Highness,” (I suspect that would still be, “Your Majesty,”) “the Queen Mother’s Office are asking” (is asking,) “the unit are still in the fold” (is still in the fold,) the start quote mark is omitted at a story’s beginning, stripped off (stripped of,) Becqurel Reindeer (they are radioactive, so I presume Becquerel,) borne (born,) Hitchens’ (Hitchens’s – which is used later,) jewelery (the USian is jewelry, in British English it’s jewellery,) the total affect (the noun is effect,) goddess’ (goddess’s, which is used 12 lines later!) equilibriums (equilibria,) Deluvian Flood Theory (Diluvian? – which means flood, so is this Flood Flood Theory?) “Hands were shook” (shaken,) a phenomena (phenomena is plural; one of them is a phenomenon,) “It’s the circulating domain of their receptors that are different” (is different,) sunk (sank,) rarified (rarefied,) talk to the them (no “the”,) none of us get (gets,) aureoles (context suggests areolae,) “that whole series were built” (that series was built,) “a great deal of time to attempting” (no need for the “to”,) “The chained aurora borealis flicker and vanish,” (if its one aurora borealis that should be “flickers and vanishes”; otherwise it’s aurorae boreales.) “We sweeped over the dark waves,” (I think that really ought to be “swept”,) hemi sphere (hemisphere,) the Van Oort belt (a confusion of Oort Cloud with Van Allen Belt?) infered (even USian surely has inferred?) borne of parents (born of; definitely born of.)

Hugo Awards Short Lists

The Hugo is effectively the world’s Science Fiction award but it’s usually a North American fiefdom. The awards are presented at the World Science Fiction Convention, which, this year, is Lone Star Con 3 on whose website all the nominations can be found.

Unlike the BSFA Awards the Hugo splits non-novel SF into three categories as below.

Best Novel
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
Blackout by Mira Grant (Orbit)
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi (Tor)
Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (DAW)

Best Novella

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
“The Stars Do Not Lie” by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)

Best Novelette

“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Postscripts: Unfit For Eden, PS Publications)
“Fade To White” by Catherynne M. Valente (Clarkesworld, August 2012)
“The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi” by Pat Cadigan (Edge of Infinity, Solaris)
“In Sea-Salt Tears” by Seanan McGuire (Self-published)
“Rat-Catcher” by Seanan McGuire (A Fantasy Medley 2, Subterranean)

Best Short Story

“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012)
“Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, August 2012)
“Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu (The Future is Japanese, VIZ Media LLC)

Remarkably I have read two of the novels, but that is thanks to Interzone and its reviews editor, Jim Steel.

It is notable that only one novel (2312) and one short story (Immersion) appear both on the BSFA short list and the Hugo.

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