Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation

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In late September I posted my fall TBR list, and I’m back today with a review of my fourth read from the list! When I added Invisible Planets to my list, I didn’t dare dream that I would get an advance review copy. To my delight that’s exactly what happened thanks to the kind folks at NetGalley and Tor. I haven’t posted in a while as I’ve been reading it slowly to enjoy it – plus I’ve been getting more hours at my fantastic new dream job… so I’m extra sleepy when I get home and writing has passed me by a bit.

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As soon as I learned of Invisible Planets, I knew that I wanted to check it out. I’ve been more into science fiction lately, but reading diverse authors is also very important to me. Add in the fact that Ken Liu was the translator and I was absolutely sold on this book.

It certainly didn’t disappoint!

The book begins with a preface by Ken Liu giving a little bit of background on the stories included in the anthology. He also speaks about how “any broad literary classification tied to a culture (…) encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture.” He goes on to say some very interesting things that me think and appreciate the stories that followed even more. His note about translation at the end proves that the reader is in the right hands. (Don’t skip this introduction!)

Before each author’s stories is a short biography in which Ken Liu tells the reader about their accomplishments, styles, and the broader contexts of their work. A very necessary addition to the text, especially if you’re going to seek out more of the authors’ work.

First up were Chen Qiufan’s stories – the first wasn’t to my tastes, but the subject matter was interesting. The other two I did enjoy. The mix of realism with slightly sci-fi elements was compelling and Chen’s writing was concise, not a word wasted. He also authored one of the essays at the end of the anthology, which definitely illuminated some of the story themes seen here.

Next up was Xia Jia, who turned out to be my absolute favourite of this anthology! Her beautiful prose and imagery were both fantastical and absolutely believable. These were the kinds of beautiful stories I enjoy reading aloud based purely on their lovely construction. In saying that, they were also the kind of soft science fiction that I’ve craving lately, though she describes her own work as ‘porridge SF’.  A tale of a boy who lives with ghosts, the story of a mechanical dragon-horse, and a story of innovation turned to an entirely new purpose round out her section. She also authored one of the essays in the book about what it is exactly that makes Chinese science fiction Chinese. I would buy this book for her stories alone.

Then came Ma Boyong, whose addition to this anthology was an eerie tale that was a nod to Orwell’s 1984, but also a commentary on a censorship regime that was published here in its original form rather than the altered one it was given to get past a real censorship regime. Now there’s an interesting twist, no? This tale straddled the line between bleak and inspiring, and I would have loved to see it as a novella to find out what happens to the main character.

Hao Jingfang is the author of the story for which the anthology is named, and it is certainly well deserved. She tells a tale of scores of planets that left me aching for more. Her small glimpses into these other worlds revealed an incredible gift of imagination and of storytelling that is again revealed in her next story. Her second story is a dystopian gem about a Beijing that folds up only to unfold again to reveal a city of vastly different demographics.

Tang Fei’s story of an unusual call girl was enrapturing. The surreal nature of the story was compelling, and this is another tale that I would love to see expanded as a novella or even a full novel.

Cheng Jingbo was next, with a fairy-tale like story that took some thinking to comprehend. The imagery was intensely unique, as was the concept itself.

Liu Cixin was last, though he is recognized as the leading voice in Chinese science fiction. His first story was an adaptation of a chapter from his novel ‘The Three-Body Problem’. It was ‘hard’ science fiction, of the kind that brings in undoubtable scientific elements. Not to my taste, but those who enjoy the works of the science fiction ‘greats’ will like this. The last story in the anthology was one that again showcased the wonders of science, but also the wonders and failings of mankind. Liu also authored an essay that explores the history of science fiction in China.

All together, I found this anthology absolutely fantastic. I would recommend it to anyone looking for not only science fiction, but also new authors to look out for. This is going on my favourites shelf and I’ll be following most of the authors within in the hopes that more of their work will be translated and made available in English. And of course, Ken Liu’s incredible skills as a translator mustn’t be overlooked. Every writer within clearly had a style of their own that was not lost to a change in language.

Thanks again to NetGalley and Tor who gave me the opportunity to explore these incredible new worlds!

 

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