Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

by Ken Liu

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765384195
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 458,269
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

KEN LIU (editor and translator) is a writer, lawyer, and computer programmer. His short story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first work of fiction ever to sweep the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

CHEN QIUFAN

A fiction writer, screenwriter, and columnist — with a side gig as a product marketing manager for Baidu, the Chinese web giant — Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan) has published fiction in venues such as Science Fiction World, Esquire, Chutzpah!, and ZUI Found. Liu Cixin, China's most prominent science fiction author, praised Chen's debut novel, The Waste Tide (2013), as "the pinnacle of near-future SF writing." Chen has garnered numerous literary awards, including Taiwan's Dragon Fantasy Award and China's Galaxy (Yinhe) and Nebula (Xingyun) Awards. In English translation, he has been featured in markets such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Interzone, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. "The Fish of Lijiang" won a Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award in 2012, and "The Year of the Rat" was selected by Laird Barron for The Year's Best Weird Fiction: Volume One.

The three stories collected here, "The Year of the Rat," "The Fish of Lijiang," and "The Flower of Shazui," showcase Chen's unique aesthetic of melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China's traditions and complex historical legacy. By turns cynical, hopeful, playful, and didactic, Chen captures the zeitgeist of contemporary China, a culture going through a shocking transition and transformation. For more on how Chinese science fiction reflects this aspect of the Chinese experience, see Chen's essay, "The Torn Generation," at the end of this book.

A native of Shantou, Guangdong Province, and a graduate of Peking University, one of the China's most elite colleges, Chen speaks the Shantou topolect as well as Cantonese, Mandarin, and English (the spelling of his English name ["Chan"] reflects the Cantonese pronunciation). A language virtuoso, he has written speculative fiction stories in Classical Chinese — a feat akin to a contemporary English writer composing a story in the language of Chaucer — as well as Cantonese and Modern Standard Chinese. The linguistic divisions and diversity of his native land provide both backdrop and metaphor for his novel The Waste Tide, which I'm translating into English. "The Flower of Shazui" is set in the same universe as The Waste Tide and offers a glimpse into that world.

THE YEAR OF THE RAT

It's getting dark again. We've been in this hellhole for two days, but we haven't even seen a single rat's hair.

My socks feel like greasy dishrags, so irritating that I want to punch someone. My stomach is cramping up from hunger, but I force my feet to keep moving. Wet leaves slap me in the face like open hands. It hurts.

I want to return the biology textbook in my backpack to Pea and tell him, This stupid book has eight hundred seventy-two pages. I also want to give him back his pair of glasses, even though it's not heavy, not heavy at all.

Pea is dead.

The Drill Instructor said that the insurance company would pay his parents something. He didn't say how much.

Pea's parents would want something to remember him by. So I had taken the glasses out of his pocket and that goddamned book out of his waterproof backpack. Maybe this way his parents would remember how their son was a good student, unlike the rest of us.

Pea's real name is Meng Xian. But we all called him "Pea" because one, he was short and skinny like a pea sprout, and two, he was always joking that the friar who experimented with peas, Gregor "Meng-De-Er" Mendel, was his ancestor.

Here's what they said happened: When the platoon was marching across the top of the dam of the abandoned reservoir, Pea noticed a rare plant growing out of the cracks in the muddy concrete at the edge of the dam. He broke formation to collect it.

Maybe it was his bad eyesight, or maybe that heavy book threw him off balance. Anyway, the last thing everyone saw was Pea, looking really like a green pea, rolling, bouncing down the curved slope of the side of the dam for a hundred meters and more, until finally his body abruptly stopped, impaled on a sharp branch sticking out of the water.

The Drill Instructor directed us to retrieve the body and wrap it in a body bag. His lips moved for a bit, then stopped. I knew what he wanted to say — we'd all heard him say it often enough — but he restrained himself. Actually, I kind of wanted to hear him say it.

You college kids are idiots. You don't even know how to stay alive.

He's right.

Someone taps me on the shoulder. It's Black Cannon. He smiles at me apologetically. "Time to eat."

I'm surprised at how friendly Black Cannon is toward me. Maybe it's because when Pea died, Black Cannon was walking right by him. And now he feels sorry that he didn't grab Pea in time.

I sit next to the bonfire to dry my socks. The rice tastes like crap mixed with the smell from wet socks baking by the fire.

Goddamn it. I'm actually crying.

* * *

The first time I spoke to Pea was at the end of last year, at the university's mobilization meeting. A bright red banner hung across the front of the auditorium: "It's honorable to love the country and support the army; it's glorious to protect the people and kill rats." An endless stream of school administrators took turns at the podium to give speeches.

I sat next to Pea by coincidence. I was an undergraduate majoring in Chinese literature; he was a graduate student in the biology department. We had nothing in common except neither of us could find jobs after graduation. Our files had to stay with the school while we hung around for another year, or maybe even longer.

In my case, I had deliberately failed my Classical Chinese exam so I could stay in school. I hated the thought of looking for a job, renting an apartment, getting to work at nine A.M. just so I could look forward to five P.M., dealing with office politics, etc., etc. School was much more agreeable: I got to download music and movies for free; the cafeteria was cheap (ten yuan guaranteed a full stomach); I slept until afternoon every day and then played some basketball. There were also pretty girls all around — of course, I could only look, not touch.

To be honest, given the job market right now and my lack of employable skills, staying in school was not really my "choice." But I wasn't going to admit that to my parents.

As for Pea, because of the trade war with the Western Alliance, he couldn't get a visa. A biology student who couldn't leave the country had no job prospects domestically, especially since he was clearly the sort who was better at reading books than hustling.

I had no interest in joining the Rodent-Control Force. As they continued the propaganda onstage, I muttered under my breath, "Why not send the army?"

But Pea turned to me and started to lecture. "Don't you know that the situation on the border is very tense right now? The army's role is to protect the country against hostile foreign nations, not to fight rats."

Who talks like that? I decided to troll him a bit. "Why not send the local peasants, then?"

"Don't you know that grain supplies are tight right now? The work of the peasantry is to grow food, not to fight rats."

"Why not use rat poison? It's cheap and fast."

"These are not common rats, but Neorats™. Common poisons are useless."

"Then make genetic weapons, the kind that will kill all the rats after a few generations."

"Don't you know that genetic weapons are incredibly expensive? Their mission is to act as a strategic deterrent against hostile foreign nations, not to fight rats."

I sighed. This guy was like one of those telephone voice menus, with only a few phrases that he used all the time. Trolling him wasn't any fun.

"So you think the job of college graduates is to fight rats?" I said, smiling at him.

Pea seemed to choke, and his face turned red. For a while, he couldn't say anything in response. Then he turned to clichés like "the country's fate rests on every man's shoulders." But finally he did give a good reason: "Members of the Rodent-Control Force are given food and shelter, with guaranteed jobs to be assigned after discharge."

* * *

The platoon has returned to the town to be resupplied.

In order to discourage desertion, all the students in the Rodent-Control Force are assigned to units operating far from their homes. We can't even understand one another's dialects, so everyone has to curl his tongue to speak Modern Standard Mandarin.

I mail Pea's book and glasses to his parents. I try to write a heartfelt letter to them, but the words refuse to come. In the end, I write only, "I'm sorry for your loss."

But the postcard I write to Xiaoxia is filled with dense, tiny characters. I think about her long, long legs. This is probably my twenty-third letter to her already.

I find a store to recharge my phone and text my parents at home. When we're operating in the field, most of the time we get no signal.

The shop owner takes my one yuan and grins at me. The people of this town have probably never seen so many college graduates (though right now we're covered in dirt and not looking too sharp). A few old men and old women smile at us and give us thumbs-ups — but maybe only because they think we're pumping extra money into the town's economy. As I think about Pea, I want to give them my middle finger.

After the Drill Instructor takes care of Pea's funeral arrangements, he takes us to a cheap restaurant. "We're still about twenty-four percent away from accomplishing our quota," he says.

No one answers him. Everyone is busy shoveling rice into his mouth as quickly as possible.

"Work hard, and let's try to win the Golden Cat Award, okay?"

Still no one answers him. We all know that the award is linked to the bonus paid to the Drill Instructor.

The Drill Instructor slams the table and gets up. "You want to be a bunch of lazy bums all your life, is that it?"

I grab my rice bowl, thinking that he's going to flip the table.

But he doesn't. After a moment, he sits down and continues to eat.

Someone whispers, "Do you think our detector is broken?"

Now everyone starts talking. Most are in agreement with the sentiment. Someone offers a rumor that some platoon managed to use their detector to find deposits of rare earth metals and gas fields. They stopped hunting for rats and got into the mining business, solving the unemployment problem of the platoon in one stroke.

"That's ridiculous," the Drill Instructor says. "The detector follows the tracer elements in the blood of the rats. How can it find gas fields?" He pauses for a moment, then adds, "If we follow the flow of the water, I'm sure we'll find them."

* * *

The first time I saw the Drill Instructor, I knew I wanted to hit him.

As we lined up for the first day of boot camp, he paced before us, his face dour, and asked, "Who can tell me why you're here?"

After a while, Pea hesitantly raised his hand.

"Yes?"

"To protect the motherland," Pea said. Everyone burst out in laughter. Only I knew that he was serious.

The Drill Instructor didn't change his expression. "You think you're funny? I'm going to award you ten push-ups." Everyone laughed louder.

But that stopped soon enough. "For the rest of you, one hundred push-ups!"

As we gasped and tried to complete the task, the Drill Instructor slowly paced among us, correcting our postures with his baton.

"You're here because you're all failures! You lived in the new dorms the taxpayers built, ate the rice the peasants grew, enjoyed every privilege the country could give you. Your parents spent their coffin money on your tuition. But in the end, you couldn't even find a job, couldn't even keep yourselves alive. You're only good for catching rats! Actually, you're even lower than rats. Rats can be exported for some foreign currency, but you? Why don't you look in the mirror at your ugly mugs? What are your real skills? Let me see: chatting up girls, playing computer games, cheating on tests. Keep on pushing! You don't get to eat unless you finish."

I gritted my teeth as I did each push-up. I thought, If someone would just get a revolt started, I'm sure all of us together can whip him.

Everyone else thought the exact same thing, so nothing happened.

Later, when we were eating, I kept on hearing the sound of chopsticks knocking against bowls because our hands and arms were all trembling. One recruit, so sunburned that his skin was like dark leather, couldn't hold his chopsticks steady and dropped a piece of meat on the ground.

The Drill Instructor saw. "Pick it up and eat it."

But the recruit was stubborn. He stared at the Drill Instructor and didn't move.

"Where do you think your food comes from? Let me explain something to you: the budget for your food is squeezed out of the defense budget. So every grain of rice and every piece of meat you eat comes from a real soldier going hungry."

The recruit muttered, "Who cares?"

Pa-la! The Drill Instructor flipped over the table in front of me. Soup, vegetables, rice covered all of us.

"Then none of you gets to eat." The Drill Instructor walked away.

From then on that recruit became known as Black Cannon.

The next day, they sent in the "good cop," the district's main administrator. He began with a political lesson. Starting with a quote from The Book of Songs (tenth century BC) ("rat, oh, rat, don't eat my millet"), he surveyed the three- thousand-year history of the dangers posed to the common people by rat infestations. Then, drawing on contemporary international macro-politico-economic developments, he analyzed the unique threat posed by the current infestation and the necessity of complete eradication. Finally, he offered us a vision of the hope and faith placed in us by the people: "It's honorable to love the country and support the army; it's glorious to protect the people and kill rats."

We ate well that day. After alluding to the incident from the day before, the administrator criticized the Drill Instructor. He noted that we college graduates were "the best of the best, the future leaders of our country," and that instruction must be "fair, civil, friendly" and emphasize "technique," not merely rely on "simplistic violence."

To close, the administrator wanted to take some photos with all of us. We lined up in a single rank, goose-stepping. The administrator held up a rope that the tips of all our feet had to touch, to show how orderly we could march.

* * *

We follow the flow of the water. The Drill Instructor is right. We see signs of droppings and paw prints.

It's getting colder now. We're lucky that we're operating in the south. I can't even imagine making camp up north, where it's below freezing. The official news is relentlessly upbeat: the Rodent-Control Force units in several districts have already been honorably discharged and have been assigned good jobs with a few state- owned enterprises. But among the lucky names in the newsletter I don't recognize anyone I know. No one else in the platoon does, either.

The Drill Instructor holds up his right fist. Stop. Then he spreads out his five fingers. We spread out and reconnoiter.

"Prepare for battle."

Suddenly I'm struck by how ridiculous this is. If this kind of slaughter — like a cat playing with mice — can be called a "battle," then someone like me who has no ambition, who lives more cowardly than a lapdog, can be a "hero."

A gray-green shadow stumbles among the bushes. Neorats are genetically modified to walk upright, so they are slower than regular rats. We joke among ourselves that it's a good thing they didn't use Jerry — of Tom and Jerry — as the model.

But this Neorat is on all fours. The belly is swollen, which further limits its movement. Is the rat preg — ah, no. I see the dangling penis.

Now it's turning into a farce. A bunch of men with steel weapons stalk a potbellied rat. In complete silence, we slowly inch across the field. Suddenly the rat leaps forward and rolls down a hill and disappears.

We swear in unison and rush after it.

At the bottom of the hill is a hole in the ground. In the hole are thirty, forty rats with swollen bellies. Most are dead. The one that just jumped in is still breathing heavily, chest heaving.

"A plague?" the Drill Instructor asks. No one answers. I think of Pea. If he were here, he would know.

Chi. A spear pierces the belly of the dying rat. It's from Black Cannon. He grins as he pulls the spear back, slicing the belly open like a ripe watermelon.

Everyone gasps. Inside this male rat's belly are more than a dozen rat fetuses: pink, curled up like a dish of shrimp cocktail around the intestines. A few men are having dry heaves. Black Cannon, still grinning, lifts his spear again.

"Stop," the Drill Instructor says. Black Cannon backs off, laughing and twirling his spear.

The Neorats were engineered to limit their reproductive capacity: for every one female rat born, there would be nine male rats. The idea had been to control the population size to keep up their market value.

But now it looks like the measures are failing. The males before us died because their abdominal cavity could not support the fetuses. But how could they be pregnant in the first place? Clearly their genes are trying to bypass their engineered boundaries.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Invisible Planets"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Ken Liu.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

“The Year of the Rat” by Chen Qiufan
“The Fist of Lijian” by Chen Qiufan
“The Flower of Shazui” by Chen Qiufan
“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia
“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia
“Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” by Xia jia
“The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong
“Invisible Planets” by Hao Jingfang
“Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang
“Call Girl” by Tang Fei
“Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo
“The Circle” by Liu Cixin
“Taking Care of God” by Liu Cixin
“The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction” by Liu Cixin and Ken Liu
“The Torn Generation” Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition” by Chen Qiufan and Ken Liu
“What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” by Xia Jia and Ken Liu

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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A collection of insightful stories into a different way of looking at things. The essays are essential reading.