Invisible Planets Is a Singular Anthology of Chinese Science Fiction

invisibleplanetsIf you’re tempted to skip the introduction to Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation to get to the meat of it, don’t. The short introduction from the editor, Ken Liu, is required reading if you hope to understand the selection process for this collection, and the cultural context that led to its creation. While each selection can absolutely be read without a deep knowledge of Chinese culture, if you’re an uninformed Westerner like me, it definitely helps to have a big of background to help you understand and appreciate the complexity of these 13 multilayered stories.

Ken Liu has made his name as both a translator and novelist. His translated edition of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (two of Cixin Liu’s stories appear here) is the first work of translated fiction to win a Hugo Award, and he’s been nominated for—and won—many awards for his own fiction. The stories he’s chosen for this anthology are representative of the expansive breadth of styles and ideas Chinese science fiction has to offer. I’ve highlighted some of my favorites below, but the bottom line is, this is a well-balanced, thoughtfully assembled collection, essential for any reader who wants to expand their understanding of the genre on a global scale.

“The Flower of Shazui,” by Chen Qiufan
This story is set in the world of Quifan’s acclaimed novel The Waste Tide, which is currently being translated into English by Ken Liu for publication in the West. This story features flashy futuristic technology paired with gritty industrialism. Though set in the far future, it’s rooted in Chinese cultural traditions, and ancestral magic and social status play as important a role as ever.

“Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse,” by Xia Jia
Xia Jia is the first person in China to received a Ph.D. with a specialization in science fiction, and this publication marks this particular story’s English-language debut. It’s a lyrical fusion of science fiction and Chinese myth told from the point of view of an artificial intelligence that has awoken in a far-future, post-human world after a long slumber. Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece of science fiction that might also qualify as poetry. This one will haunt you in the best way possible, and it is absolutely my favorite story in the anthology.

“Invisible Planets,” by Hao Jingfang
This is a fabulist tale inspired by the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. As she explains in an introduction, Hao Jingfang does not limit herself to sci-fi writing, thus her works often blur the lines between genres. This is a fun story in which the narrator describes to the reader the cultures and taxonomies of planets in a fictional universe, from the extraordinary liars of Chichi Raha; to Bingwayh, a planet whose only habitable area is located on a cliff that bisects the equator; to Lunaji, whose inhabitants are known for the creation of luxury vehicles. How can a story with no real plot be so utterly fascinating?

“The Circle,” by Cixin Liu
Those not ready to dive into Cixin Liu’s mind-bending, Hugo-award-winning trilogy will enjoy this smaller sampling of the author’s vast imagination. The Three-Body Problem is a hard SF first contact story, and “The Circle” is, in fact, an adaptation of a chapter from the novel. It’s not necessary to understand how it fits into the larger narrative, and its removal from the whole doesn’t affect the story in the least. It might also be the most interesting story about math, strategy, and betrayal I have ever read, even as it offers an inticing glimpse of Cixin Liu’s style.

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation is available now.

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