Broken Stars edited and translated by Ken Liu (book review).
Like much of the Science Fiction community, I’ve become very excited about Chinese Science Fiction of late. I read Ken Liu’s first collection of translated works, ‘Invisible Planets’, and the four Liu Cixin novels that have been translated so far, as well as meeting Liu Cixin for an interview. This new collection ‘Broken Stars’, which is both edited and translated by Ken Liu, is a hefty volume of almost 500 pages, including a fabulous selection of stories and some essays on Chinese Science Fiction. Some of the stories have previously been published in English translation, but many of them are new to this volume.
The collection starts with Xia Jia’s ‘Goodnight, Melancholy’, which alternates two strands: the story of a depressed woman’s struggle to overcome her problems with the aid of two artificial life-forms and a semi-historical account of Turing’s dealings with artificial intelligence and computers that could pass the Turing Test. The two sections are seemingly unconnected but, thematically and emotionally, they run together beautifully and form a touchingly rounded tale.
Liu Cixin’s contribution to the volume is ‘Moonlight’, a cleverly uneventful tale in which a man receives a series of phone calls from his future self, giving him advanced information to help change the world. Unfortunately, things don’t work out the way they plan, leading the man to imagine the future while wielding incredible power over it. It’s the kind of story that makes you smile in appreciation.
‘Broken Stars’ by Tang Fei is the story of a girl named Jiaming, who listens to the predictions of the crazed apparition of her mother who foretells the future using the stars. As her life is changed in bizarre ways, it transpires that all is not what it seems. The story takes some strange and troubling twists and turns and packs quite a punch.
There are two short stories from Han Song, both of them on the surreal side of Science Fiction. The first is ‘Submarines’, in which the peasant folk build a flotilla of home-made submarines to live in, inhabiting the Yangtze River in a way that disturbs the status quo. It’s an interesting curio of a story. The second is ‘Salinger And The Koreans’ in which the author of ‘Catcher In The Rye’ is interviewed by a Cosmic Observer and explains how he somehow changed history so that the North Koreans take over the planet. It’s another crazy little tale that seems to be implying more than I could parse.
Cheng Jingbo’s fantastical ‘Under A Dangling Sky’ mixes fairy tale and Science Fiction in a world where a giant crystal dome encloses the limits of civilisation. The dolphins in the bay can communicate with humans, too, and one particularly day-dreamy dolphin named Giana dreams of escaping the confines of the dome. It’s a lovely, mystical tale.
‘What Has Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’ is a very clever tale from Baoshu in which the events of recent history occur in reverse, although time is still travelling forward from the point of view of the characters. The introduction remarks that a knowledge of modern Chinese history will give the reader more appreciation of the tale, but there were enough references for me to enjoy it. When ‘Star Wars Episode IV’ is released at the cinema, the characters remember watching episodes I, II & III as children and there are lots of similar moments that bring a smile to the mouth.
Hao Jingfang presents us a story in the form of a TV report about the mysteriously vanished ‘The New Year Train’. Again, this story is rooted in Chinese tradition as millions of people attempt to make their way home for the traditional New Year visit and a new quantum-tunnelling train attempts to provide a more efficient means of doing so. It’s short, sharp and fun.
‘The Robot Who Liked To Tell Tall Tales’ by Fei Dao is another eclectic mix of Science Fiction, fantasy and fable. It follows the travails of a robot charged with the mission of becoming the most outrageous teller of tall tales, who then embarks on a cross between ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy’. It’s a crazy and fun story that leaves you no time to figure out whether any of it makes any sense.
‘The Snow Of Jinyang’ is an example of the Chinese genre of chuanyue by Zhang Ren. The genre centre around modern characters who end up in historical settings and struggle to fit in or not. In this case, a medieval city under siege is flooded with futuristic devices such as Ray-Bans, a mechanical form of Internet and various weapons. My knowledge of medieval China is non-existent but, for the most part, the story appears to be a well-described historical account, with the mystery of anachronistic inventions thrown into the chaos of war. It’s an enthralling tale.
In a homage to Douglas Adams’ setting but in a totally different style, Anna Wu’s ‘The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe: Laba Porridge’ is one of the author’s series of stories in which diners at the eponymous restaurant recount tales of their own. Laba porridge is a peasant’s meal made from a mixture of whatever grain is available. Over a bowl of this food, the restaurant owner tells the story of a struggling author who makes a desperate deal to regain his skill and inspiration. I’d be intrigued to know whether the Agency of Mysteries, with whom he deals, features in other stories as it’s a fascinating concept for an organisation that can supply anything at a price and this story certainly delivers a flavoursome feast.
Probably the story that struck me as the most profound and that offered an amazing concept that seemed somewhat familiar but turned out not to be at all was Gu Shi’s ‘Reflection’. A young man goes to visit a supposed clairvoyant who can apparently see the future because her memory works backwards and she actually remembers the future. The way this affects her conversation, her lack of recognition and numerous other things affected by memory is remarkably clever. Then the whole story turns out to be even cleverer than that.
Regina Kanyu Wang gives us ‘The Brain Box’, which refers to a device installed into the brain that acts like an aircraft’s black box, but can only hold five minutes’ worth of information. Following the death of his fiancé, a young man undergoes the procedure to relive her final minutes of life, with profound consequences. It’s a wonderfully sensitive and thoughtful piece.
Chen Quifan provides two contributions to the collection. ‘Coming Of The Light’ is an interesting mixture of computer programming and Buddhist monks that takes a metaphysical view of the universe, blessings for apps and the concept of free will and blends them into a fantastic tale. ‘A History Of Future Illnesses’ is literally that, in which a visitor from the future details a series of bizarre maladies caused by technology, society and inexplicable phenomenon. It’s a fascinating concept that gradually ties back in to a narrative form rather than just a list of encyclopaedia entries.
The collection concludes with three essays on the history and current state of Chinese Science Fiction, all of which I found fascinating. This collection has further fuelled my interest in Chinese SF and the bright picture these essays paint of the blossoming in the genre in China only added to my optimism. I also discovered from the author introductions that two more Chinese authors are due to have novels published in English this year, so I’ve already added them to my to-read list. This was another fascinating, entertaining and mind-expanding collection which I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish.
Gareth D Jones
(pub: Head Of Zeus. 479 page enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78854-810-6)
check out website: www.headofzeus.com