Invisible Planets edited by Ken Liu (book review)

November 16, 2016 | By | Reply More

Not to be confused with Hannu Rajaniemi’s recent debut collection of the same name, this ‘Invisible Planets’ is an anthology of contemporary Chinese SF in translation. Ken Liu is the editor and also the translator of all the stories, most of which have appeared in some of the top SF venues over the past few years. Coming hot on the heels of my reading Liu Cixin’s ‘Three-Body Trilogy’ and then interviewing both Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I was decidedly in the mood for some more Chinese Science Fiction. The volume also includes a lengthy introduction and three essays on the subject of Chinese Science Fiction, which give a good introduction to the subject and dispel various misconceptions that Western readers are almost bound to have. There are thirteen stories altogether that make up a collection of top-rate tales irrespective of what language they were originally written in. I could say good things about all of them but, as there are multiple stories by most of the authors and many have already received awards and been reprinted in ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies, I’ll restrict myself to commenting on my personal favourites.

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The volume opens with Chen Quifan’s ‘The Year Of The Rat’ which takes us on a grim tour of the countryside in search of giant, bioengineered rats that have, not surprisingly, escaped and are taking over the country. The story avoids what could easily turn into cliché and environmental preachiness but gives instead a brilliant portrait of a group of unemployed graduates facing their rodent foes and their own internal struggles.

‘Tongtong’s Summer’ is a light and cheerful tale from Xia Jia, giving a positive view of the use of technology to benefit society. It’s the kind of optimistic story that you don’t see too often but makes a nice break from some of the more traditionally grim visions of the future.

‘The City Of Silence’ is Ma Boyong’s powerful tale of increasingly harsh censorship and the people who try to find the freedom to express themselves in a city where nobody can be trusted and almost nothing is allowable. Arvarden lives in the Capital of the State where everything is generic and bland. When he makes contact with a secretive group of rebels, he embarks on a liberating but dangerous course. Ma Boyong takes the concept to the extreme and paints a picture of a frighteningly claustrophobic future.

Hao Jingfang builds a fabulous concept in ‘Folding Beijing’ which turns out to be a surprisingly literal title. Lao Dao is a recycling worker in the cramped and underprivileged Third Space of the folding city, obliged to spend his life living at night, mostly working and then being folded away to make room for the privileged classes of First Space. His eye-opening journey to Second and then First Space is in some ways like one of those old-fashioned tales of the common man encountering a strange and futuristic society written decades ago but Hao Jingfang builds an intriguing and complex society where Lao Dao’s life is literally interlinked with the worlds of wealth and privilege he visits. The world-weary Lao makes an excellent protagonist to take us through this wondrous landscape.

Tang Fei’s story ‘Call Girl’ starts off sounding like it’s going to be exactly what you expect from the title. Then it takes a strange and magical turn in a direction that I can’t really explain because I wasn’t entirely sure myself what was happening. It was an intriguing little tale, though.

I was reminded of Hannu Rajaniemi again with Cheng Jingbo’s story ‘Grave Of The Fireflies’. There was none of his far-out post-cyberpunk technology, but it shared a similar lyrical aesthetic. It’s a story of far-future science and adventure cloaked in the trappings of fantasy and mysticism, where you feel as though you are always on the verge of understanding what is happening. A highly enjoyable tale in a unique setting.

The volume concludes with two stories from Liu Cixin. ‘Taking Care Of God’ takes a couple of Science Fiction’s classic tropes – alien invasion and the seeding of life on Earth – and ties them in with traditional Chinese values of respect for elders, family loyalty and hospitality. The impact of two billion geriatric aliens settling on Earth as their care-home creates a difficult situation for the planet and is played out through the eyes of one rural family in a touching and wryly amusing story.

There is fabulous variety in this book, ranging from hard Science Fiction to near-future social Science Fiction, stories heavily influenced by fantasy and fable and the first example I’ve seen of self-proclaimed ‘porridge’ Science Fiction, a story mixed with many non-science elements. This all goes to provide evidence for Ken Liu’s claim that Chinese Science Fiction can’t be described or classified any more than can British or American Science Fiction. There is an obvious Chinese flavour in the use of locations and names, cultural references and attitudes but, putting that aside, this is a fine collection of Science Fiction stories that just happened to have been originally written in Chinese.

Gareth D Jones

November 2016

(pub: Head Of Zeus. 383 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78497-880-8)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com

Category: Books, Scifi

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