Edited by Ken Liu



383pp/$24.99/November 2016

Invisible Planets
Cover by Jamie Stafford-Hill

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In 1989, Dingbo Wu and Patrick D. Murphy published a collection of Chinese science fiction in translation with a small publishing house. Comprises of 8 stories representing 6 authors, the collection gave a snapshot of the art of Chinese science fiction between 1978, when the earliest story, Tong Enzheng’s “Death Ray on a Coral Island” was published and 1987, when Jiang Yunsheng’s “Boundless Love” saw print. It has been nearly three decades since that collection appeared and Chinese science fiction has advanced by leaps and bounds. Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Ken Liu has championed many Chinese authors over the years, including translating their works for an Anglophonic audience. In Invisible Planets, he has taken several stories he has translated and presents the modern Chinese science fiction Renaissance to a Western audience.

“The Year of the Rat,” by Chen Qiufan focuses on a work force in China intent on capturing and killing a rat infestation. The work crew is just like other work crews that could be found in China, but the rats are unique…bioengineered for intelligence. Although the group is working in concert towards the same goal, there is strife and competition amongst them, from the narrator to his nemesis, Black Cannon, to the men who doesn’t fit in, Pea. The narrator tells their story, portraying the other characters through his own point of view, as well as the minor successes and major disappointments of his own life, clearly noting that someone who is off killing rats hasn’t achieved the greatest success.

Xia Jia is also represented by three stories, the last of which, “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse,” is a fable about a mechanical dragon-horse roaming a post-apocalyptic countryside attempting to complete an unremembered mission. Along the way, the dragon-horse reveals it was created in Nantes, France, demonstrating a world that was once not only tied together through trade, but in which countries attempted to forge closer relationships. During its aimless journey, the dragon-horse meets a talking bat, which can either indicate bioengineering before the apocalypse, or can just reinforce the fabulous-nature of the story. The bat also gives the dragon-horse a renewed sense of purpose and the dragon-horse provides transportation and entertainment to the bat, regaling it with stories of the massive cities the dragon-horse used to inhabit.

Ma Bayong provides one of the more chilling explorations of society in “The City of Silence.” The state has complete control over all methods of communication and issues an ever-fluctuating list of words which may be used, which not only controls speech, but also impacts thought. When people find ways to combine allowed words to create unallowable concepts, words are removed from the permitted list. Computer programmer ARVARDAN19842015BNKF is unhappy and in his attempts to make a connection to other humans following his witnessing of a rare outburst in the streets leads him to a small band that has found a way around government censorship, at least for a little while. The power and omnipresence of the state is chilling, presenting a world in which words and ideas are used to control the population’s thoughts in a manner reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.

Ken Liu chose to title the anthology after Hao Jingfang’s piece “Invisible Planets,” which makes sense. It isn’t really a story, almost more a travelogue of several different planets with their wide variety of cultures, biologies, and environments, described by one person to another with occasional interjections about where the knowledge of these planets comes from. Similarly, the anthology is a travelogue of different authors views with occasional interjections by Liu about who the originators are. The story itself spotlights Hao’s creativity rather than the story telling prowess that won her a Hugo Award for “Folding Beijing,” the other Hao story in the anthology.

The title of “Call Girl,” by Tang Fei sets up certain expectations which are encouraged by the opening of the story describing a young girl, Xiaoyi, giving tainted money to her mother and going off to school where she is a pariah amongst the other students. It isn’t until after Xiaoyi leaves school to get into a car with an older man that Tang begins to confound the carefully set up assumptions, showing Xiaoyi providing a distinctly non-sexual service to the men who hire her.

Just as Xia Jia presented a fable with “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse,” so, too, does Cheng Jingbo with “Grave of the Fireflies.” Rosamund is a princess who lives on an ark-planet traveling to younger stars where they can set up a civilization. When they arrive at the Weightless City, Rosamund’s mother, the queen, is taken to the city’s leader and disappears, leaving Rosamund to try to learn her mother’s fate. The narrative is a little too divorced from reality to really make a complete impact on the reader, instead leaving the feeling that it has rich concepts not fully realized.

The most major author in the collection is Liu Cixin, who won the Hugo for his novel The Three-Body Problem. In Invisible Planets, he is represented by two stories, one an excerpt from his Hugo-winning novel, the other “Taking Care of God.” This story takes the von Däniken concept that life on earth was seeded by ancient astronauts and runs with it, showing what happens with those astronauts return in the modern era and insist that their children, humans, take care of them. Liu’s story follows a Chinese family who is taking care of one of the Gods. Unfortunately, the alien God is less godlike and more older family relation who doesn’t do anything. This, naturally enough, causes stress for the entire family. The situation is repeated throughout the world and the Gods become disillusioned with their spiritual offspring. The goodwill of the Gods is essential, however, for the well-being and longevity of the human race. The story is an interesting look at the care of older relatives, even when it isn’t easy.

While Ken Liu’s introduction discusses the current state of Chinese science fiction and the stories included in the anthology, he isn’t content with leaving the meta-discussion there. The book ends with three additional essays on Chinese science fiction, written by Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, and Xia Jia, further exploring aspects of Chinese science fiction. Taken all together, Invisible Planets offers a sample of the broad range of voices and topics in Chinese science fiction and shows how far it has come since Dingo Wu’s volume.

Chen Quifan The Year of the Rat
Chen Quifan The Fish of Lijiang
Chen Quifan The Flower of Shazui
Xia Jia A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
Xia Jia Tongtong's Summer
Xia Jia Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse
Ma Boyong The City of Silence
Hao Jingfang Invisible Planets
Hao Jingfang Folding Beijing Hugo Award Winner
Tang Fei Call Girl
Cheng Jingbo Grave of the Fireflies
Liu Cixin The Circle
Liu Cixin Taking Care of God
Liu Cixin The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction Non-Fiction
Chen Quifan The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition Non-Fiction
Xia Jia What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese Non-Fiction

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