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Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation 




Oct28, 2016 Tadiana✩Night Owl☽ratedit really liked it
4.5stars for thiscollection of Chinese SF short stories. Final review, firstposted on Fantasy Literature:


Invisible Planets is an interesting and varied anthologyof thirteenspeculative short fiction stories and three essays by sevencontemporary Chineseauthors, translated into English by Ken Liu.As Liu mentions in the Introduction, several of these stories have wonU.S.awards (most notably the 2016 Hugo Award for best novelette, given toHaoJingfang’s Folding Beijing) and have been included in “Year’sBest”anthologies. Chinese fantasy and science fiction is richly diverse, andthiscollection amply proves that. While there is political commentary in someofthese stories, it would be, as Liu comments, doing these works a disservicetoassume that they can be reduced to metaphors about Chinese politics.Thesestories offer insights not just into Chinese thought and culture, butaboutlife and humanity generally, which is what the best science fiction andfantasydoes.


“The Year of the Rat” by ChenQiufan.Genetically engineered rats, rodents of unusual size and intelligence,andprogrammed with certain behaviors (like walking upright), are exportedfromChina as luxury pets. When a mass escape of rats from their farms occurs―whether by accident or as a political ploy ― and the rats’ geneticlimitationson reproduction begin to break down, they create a threat to thecountry.Unemployed college students, like the narrator, are enlisted to huntand killthe Neorats. But the hunting and the killing turn out to be moredifficult thanexpected: the rats’ intelligence makes them difficult to trap,and some of thestudents begin to question the morality of the cause. Amongother things, thisstory explores how our ideas and perceptions can bemanipulated, whether byrats, love interests, or hidden political powers.


“The Fish of Lijiang” by ChenQiufan. Aworkaholic office worker, stressed and burned out, is placed on amandatorytwo-week leave and sent to the beautiful historic city of Lijiang, nowa centerfor rehabilitation. He meets a girl there and they begin spendingtimetogether, seeing the sights, playing drinking games, listening to strangeNaximusic, watching the red fish hover in the waterways, struggling againstthecurrent to maintain their positions. The girl opens the narrator’s eyes tosomehigh tech tricks that are being foisted on unsuspecting workers. Theclassthemes in “The Fish of Lijiang” are echoed in the later story FoldingBeijing,which I felt handled that theme more creatively, but the repeatedsymbol of thefish was thought-provoking.


“The Flower of Shazui” by ChenQiufan. Anengineer, on the run from a failed criminal scheme at his prior job,has made anew life in Shazui Village, selling black market augmented-realitysoftware and“body films,” a thin film applied to people’s bodies that displayswords orpictures. When Snow Lotus, a lovely high class prostitute, needs his servicesoneday for a malfunction in her body film, he finds out about the troubles inherlife and decides to use his high tech skills to assist her. This story, setinan alternate reality version of the Shenzhen Bay area, juxtaposes hardsciencefiction and high tech with the underside of society and its desperateand veryhuman problems.


“A Hundred Ghosts ParadeTonight” by XiaJia. Ning was left on the steps of a temple as a baby, and waspicked up andadopted by the ghosts who dwell on Ghost Street, a long, narrowstreetinhabited only by the ghosts ― and Ning, who loves them. Ghost Street isadefunct tourist attraction: no tourists come any more, and the buildingsarefalling to pieces. Gradually it becomes apparent that Ghost Street is a typeofWestworld amusement park: the souls of real people have been fusedintomechanical bodies that mimic some of the characteristics of actual ghosts:theycannot stand direct sunlight, which burns them irreparably; they canremovetheir heads and put them back on again.


Before she became a ghost, XiaoQian tellsme, she lived a very full life. … And then her children got sick, oneafteranother. In order to raise the money to pay the doctors, Xiao Qian soldherselfoff in pieces: teeth, eyes, breasts, heart, liver, lungs, bone marrow,andfinally her soul. Her soul was sold to Ghost Street, where it was sealedinsidea female ghost’s body. Her children died anyway.


Ning thinks he is the onlyliving being onGhost Street, but it may be that there is something artificialabout Ning aswell. “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” is a lovely, bittersweettale, enhancedby Xia Jia’s wonderful imagery. This is a story that confused meat first (Iinitially missed the shift from fantasy to science fiction), butonce Iunderstood the premise, I reread it with tremendous pleasure. It’s amagicalbut sad world, left behind in society’s unceasing search for newer,moresensational amusements.


“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia.Tongtong’sGrandpa, who can no longer live on his own, moves in with her family.Grandpagrumpily resists getting a caretaker, so Tongtong’s father decides totry out aprototype robot caregiver, which they call Ah Fu. One day Tongtongbeginsconversing with Ah Fu, and finds out that the robot is remotely controlledbyWang, a university student working in R&D at the robotmanufacturer’sfacilities. Grandpa’s temper continues to worsen, until Wangcomes up with acreative solution.


This is a fairly straightforwardtale thatsensitively explores the needs and concerns of the elderly in anear-futurescience fictional setting. I was especially moved by the author’snote at theend, dedicating this story to “all the grandmas and grandpas who,each morning,can be seen in parks practicing tai chi, twirling swords, singingopera, dancing… You made me understand that living with an awareness of thecloseness ofdeath is nothing to be afraid of.”


Jana: All of Xia Jia’s featuredpieces wereemotionally affective for me, particularly “Tongtong’s Summer,”becauseTongtong’s character and her relationship with her Grandpa weresowell-written. The Ah Fu prototype is especially interesting becausethetechnological seeds of a “robot caretaker” already exist: theinternalresistance which smooths out Grandpa’s motions inside the controllersuit isakin to the gyroscopes implemented in cutlery for people withParkinson’s;robots with interactive screens can go to school as surrogates forill orotherwise infirm children; and using a wall-screen to communicate remotelyisno different from video-conferencing or Skyping. The ending and author’snoteare, indeed, moving, and I’d recommend keeping a few tissues on hand justin case.


“Night Journey of theDragon-Horse” by XiaJia. A huge, ancient and rusted dragon-horse awakens from along sleep to finda desolate world from which humans have disappeared. Wherecars once filled thestreet like a river of steel, lush trees now dance in thewind. Thedragon-horse begins a journey to explore this changed world. Hebefriends achatty bat, and they exchange stories as they travel. It’s aleisurely tale, amelancholy tale, a poetic meditation on the effects of passageof time. As abonus, Xia Jia provides links for some YouTube videosto an actual robotic dragon-horse, built by France and gifted to Chinatocommemorate the friendship between their nations, which inspired this story.


“The City of Silence” by MaBoyong. In theyear 2046, the State tightly controls the lives of itsinhabitants, in apolluted, stagnant world. People’s lives are solitary andrather empty, withthe Web as the main vehicle for human interaction. They areonly allowed to use“healthy words” in their communications in person or online.Originally a listof forbidden words deemed unhealthy (for example, “tired,”“love,” “movement,”and all sexual and curse words), now it is a list of thewords that people are permittedto say or write. And the List of Healthy Wordsgets shorter every day. People’sspeech is constantly monitored and policed bythe state.


Arvardan applies to use the BBSforums, butthey don’t contain any more interesting speech or ideas than henormally sees.However, he notices that the documents given him by a womanworking in theDepartment of Web Security contain a hidden message … and adangerousinvitation.


Evidently inspired by GeorgeOrwell’s 1984,which is discussed in one of the meetings of the Talking Club thatArvardanjoins, “The City of Silence” takes the concept of thought police andapplies itto a technological age. As one of the characters comments,“technology isneutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free worldto become freer,and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”Arvardan and hisfriends know and can still think the words that the State nowdeems unhealthy,but one wonders what will become of the next generation in MaBoyong’snightmarish society.


“Invisible Planets,” by HaoJingfang. Oneof many recently-published short SF/F pieces which takeinspiration from ItaloColvino’s classic novel Invisible Cities, and thesource of thisanthology’s title, “Invisible Planets” describes numerous worldspopulated bycreatures both strange and familiar. Liu describes it as“fabulist,” and Ithink that’s the best descriptor for the story. As thecharacteristics of eachplanet, its inhabitants, and their histories are listed,you can almost hearthe soothing, sing-song voice of the narrator as you (theconversation partner,also included in the narrative) are transported throughoutdistant galaxies.The overall tone is slightly bittersweet: perfection in anysociety isimpossible, but that knowledge shouldn’t stop anyone fromexperiencing andenjoying beauty and the wonder of first discovery.


Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang (previously reviewed by Marionand Tadianafor our Short Fiction Monday feature). Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award forBestNovelette, this story examines literal class division via a wondrous citythatfolds into the ground and the various people that live and work withinitsbuildings. Lao Dao is a sanitation worker living in Third Space, the sectionofthe city which supports the people of Second and First Space; Third Spacehasthe largest population, over 51 million people, and yet they have thehardestlives and constantly struggle just to make ends meet. Lao Dao’s dream isfor hissmall daughter Tangtang to attend a music and dance academy, but inorder tofinance such a lofty dream, he must break the law by first meeting withanambitious student who lives in Second Space and deliver a letter to awealthywoman living in First Space. The amount in question is an impossiblyhigh sumfor him, and yet is the kind of money that First Spacers considerpocketchange.


The mechanisms of the foldingcity arewell-described, but Hao’s primary focus is on the class differencesseparatingthe people of Beijing. Things like money any quality of food, evenaccess tosunlight, are taken for granted by the wealthy and are exponentiallymoretreasured as one climbs down the economic ladder, and one’s height ofsocialclass is directly inverse to the amount of work expended by theindividual inquestion. This isn’t to say that those at the top are completelyinhuman: oneFirst Space character is clearly mindful that his section of thecity iscompletely dependent upon Third Space and its workers, and that thoseworkersmust have access to employment, even though it may be back-breakingandthankless work. Lao Dao cares so much about his little girl that he’swillingto do anything to give her a better life, even risk imprisonmentfortransgressing outside his assigned Space, and his efforts are bothsympatheticand admirable in this lovely, imaginative, astute story.


“Call Girl,” by Tang Fei. Aninterestingstory with unexpected twists about a teenaged girl and the oldergentlemen sheentertains. The set-up and title are misleading, in a good way,but I’d like toknow more about how her dog-whistle pendant and stories work.Tang provides somany tantalizing details in a short amount of text, and I’dlike just a littlemore clarity so that I can fully appreciate everything thatoccurs.


“Grave of the Fireflies,” byCheng Jingbo.Cheng blends elements of fairy tales from across the globe in thisabsolutelywondrous fairy tale about a princess, her mother, and a collection ofrefugeestraveling through a cooling universe. Their planet has been transformed“intoan Ark” to carry what remains of humanity because no one can determinewhystars are dying, but after Princess Rosamund’s people arrive at a newplanet,Weightless City, she and her mother step into a giant robot and receiveastonishinganswers. This is a complex, multi-layered, ornate story, and agenuine pleasureto read.


Kat: “The Circle,” by Liu Cixin.Liu Cixin’s “The Circle” is set in China in 227 BC. When Jing Ke, alearned manfrom a neighboring dynasty, refuses to assassinate King Zheng ashe’s beeninstructed, King Zheng recognizes that Jing Ke is not only noble, buthighlyeducated and intelligent, so he hires him as an advisor. King Zheng iseager toextend his lifespan and thinks that Jing Ke, who is studying themathematicalproperties of nature, will someday learn the secrets of eternallife. To thisend, Jing Ke is trying to calculate all the digits of pi, butit’s slow-goinguntil, under pressure, he comes up with a brilliant idea whichhe implements toeveryone’s satisfaction… until it goes wrong. At the end ofthis clever story,we’re left with the realization that great leaps in humanprogress often comefrom sudden flashes of insight and that the only thing thatlimits us is theshortness of our lifespans.


“The Circle” will be especiallyappealingto those who have a basic understanding of computer hardware andsoftware andconcepts such as binary code, Boolean algebra, RAM, firewall, etc.I think itwould be a great story to assign to a beginning computer scienceclass and willbe mentioning it to a colleague of mine who teaches CS courses atmyuniversity. (And, hey, she’s Chinese!)


Jana: Even though I know verylittle aboutcomputer programming, I enjoyed “The Circle” because Liu writes soclearly thatI could visualize everything that was taking place, and picturingmen with flagsmoving in precise patterns is easier for me than whatevermysterious alchemy ishappening inside my internet machine. Liu makes it allseem so plausible, evenwithin the context of China’s Warring States Period,since we have no way ofknowing what concepts and technologies have been lost tothe dust of time andhistory.


“Taking Care of God,” by LiuCixin. Massivespaceships appear in orbit around Earth without warning and thepassengers,announcing themselves as humanity’s progenitors and collectivelyreferred to asGods, are sent to live with families all over the planet inexchange for accessto their wildly advanced technology. Three years later, theshine has worn offthe apple, and the adoptive families chafe against thechanges brought on bycaring for an elderly person who doesn’t know how to fitinto their new surroundings.This excellent story has a little bit of everythingI like: social commentary,sly humor, and speculation about humanity’s originsand place in the universe.Liu provides an honest, thoughtful examination of theinitial joys and gradualfriction brought on by caring for an elderly familymember, as well as theconfusion and frustration felt by people who once hadlimitless freedom and nowsimply want to be taken care of by their descendants.


Tadiana: Liu Cixin’s two storieswere amongthose in this anthology that impressed me the most. “Taking Care ofGod” uses ascience fictional setting to explore the interrelationship betweenthe youthfuland the aging, both on an individual level and on a macro level, aswe see herehow an entire civilization echoes the aging process. There isfrustration andsome understandable self-interest on both ends of the spectrum.As bad as theelder abuse gets in some situations, it hits hard when one of theGods explainsthat they have been treated even worse in the past. Their urgentadvice tohumanity in the end was an interesting and unexpected turn in thenarrative.




The first, by Liu Cixin, is titled “The Worst of All Possible Universes andtheBest of All Possible Earths…” and examines the success and impact ofhistrilogy, REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST, specifically withinthescience-fiction genre and within his country. Liu’s uation of thetrilogy’ssuccess and its reception in China is as thoughtful as his fiction,with ameasure of hope for what directions the genre can take and where humanitymightgo as the future continues to unfold.


The second essay, “The TornGeneration:Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Translation” by Chen Quifan,providesinsight from “a former googler” into social progress, the roleliterature canplay in changing ideals, and “China in transformation.” Chen isboth insightfuland, like Liu Cixin, hopeful for the future.


Finally, Xia Jia’s “What MakesChineseScience Fiction Chinese?” asks a difficult question without a solidanswer,though Xia makes a strong effort at providing an overview of the genrein Chinaover the last century or so. She does a great job of informing andeducating Westernreaders who may not be familiar with the unique perspectivesof Chineseauthors, and I would consider this to be essential reading for anyonewho seeksa broader perspective on science fiction.


Overall, Invisible Planetsis animpressive collection of stories. Even though they’re all translated bythesame person, each story is clearly distinct, and the authors’ individualstylesand messages are easily discernable. Ken Liu has done the entire fieldofscience fiction a tremendous service with his work here, both as an editorandtranslator, and we sincerely hope to be able to read many more translatedworksof Chinese science fiction in the months and years to come.


Nov21, 2016 Alex☣Deranged KittyCat ☣ rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition 
There! I did it! I must say that this was a somewhat hard journey as there aremany cultural differences. But I am curious now in regard to Chinese sci-fi,and I'll be reading some more in the future.


1. "The Year of the Rat" by Chen Quifan - ★★★☆☆《鼠年》陈楸帆 
"In the Year of the Rat you'regoing to fight rats. Now that's funny."“鼠年灭鼠,有创意” 
This was... Well, I'm not sure what this was. It felt like some kind ofdystopia, where you either have a job, or you end up fighting rats. It feltlike a horror story, where you wait for the monster to appear. It felt likesomething political, where you doubt anything and everything. It was extremelyconfusing and I'm left feeling uneasy. Uneasy because the government can trickyou at any point, and because science left unchecked can bring nightmares tolife.


2. "The Fish of Lijang" by Chen Quifan - ★★★★☆《丽江的鱼儿们》陈楸帆
This is the only truly free choice Ihave left. 
This is the second story that hints at lack of freedom. 
Say hello to a workaholic man who is sent by his company to a rehabilitationcenter. He is not allowed a phone or anything else that might tell him thetime. And this center is completely artificial. 
There, he meets a woman and the two hit it. But their meeting is not by chance.It's actually pretty sad if you ask me. 
Are all the stories in this anthology sad? I hope not.


3. "The Flower of Shazui" by Chen Quifan - ★★☆☆☆《沙嘴之花》 - 陈楸帆
I have a bit of a problem with all the names. They sound so alien to me thatsometimes it's hard for me to follow.
This story is about a man who committed a crime and had to run away. He becomesinfatuated with a prostitute who is in a relationship with her pimp. Trying tohelp her, things get out of hand.
Again, a sad story. 


4. "A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" by Xia Jia - ★★★★★《百鬼夜行街》夏笳
And then her children got sick, oneafter another. In order to raise the money to pay the doctors, Xiao Qian soldherself off in pieces: teeth, eyes, breasts, heart, liver, lungs, bone marrow,and finally her soul. Her soul was sold to Ghost Street, where it was sealedinside a female ghost's body. Her children died anyway. 


This is by far my favorite story. It's that of a boy living on a street full ofghosts, robots that are shells for human souls. These ghosts were toys forhumans, but newer toys were invented, so Ghost Street was abandoned.
Again, a sad story, but a very interesting one. Saying more about it would meanspoiling it.


5. "Tongtong's Summer" by Xia Jia - ★★★★☆《童童的夏天》夏笳
This is an emotional story about a little girl, Tongtong, and the summer hergrandpa moved in with her family. The SF element comes in the form oftechnology. People have invented robots operated by other humans as caretakers.
We get to see things from Tongtong's POV. Even if she's an innocent child,she's quite perceptive and you cannot help getting attached to the characters. 


6. "Night Journey of the Dragon-horse" by Xia Jia - ★★★★☆《龙马夜行》夏笳
3.5 stars
These short stories are becoming quite hard to review. They are beautifullywritten. And they can be pretty boring at the same time. Maybe it's thecultural difference, but it's getting harder to finish this anthology withevery story.
This one is part SF, part post-apocalyptic, part urban fantasy. 
In a world where humans don't exist anymore, a dragon-horse robot and a bat setupon a journey. As they reminiscent about the past, we get to see glimpses of aworld before humans disappeared. With more details and more action, this wouldhave been an amazing novel.
So far, Xia Jia is my favorite Chinese writer.


7. "The City of Silence" by Ma Boyong - ★★★★★《寂静之城》马伯庸
This is very 1984ish. In fact, Orwell's book is muchtalked about in this short story. But instead of Big Brother watching you, youhave the appropriate authorities listening to your every word. The webhas become a control tool and people rarely leave their houses.
Some said that outside the borders ofthe State there are other Web sites, but those were only urban legends. 
As a huge fan of 1984, I loved The City of Silence.


8. "Invisible Planets" by Hao Jingfang - ★★★★☆《看不见的星球》郝景芳
"Yes, what you say sounds like theTruth. But the world is full of Truths. So what if you have a Truth?"


This short story feels like a discussion between an adult and a child. Theadult tells stories about different planets and their inhabitants. I especiallyliked the story of planet Amiyachi. This planet has two intelligent races, oneruling during the winter, and one during the summer. They don't know about eachother and have no clue how if one perished, so would the other.


9. "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang - ★★☆☆☆《北京折叠》郝景芳
The title says it all, as the city of Beijing is actually folding (thinkInception or Doctor Strange). There are three spaces (inhabited by three socialclasses) that get to take turns to be above ground. Needless to say, FirstSpace gets to enjoy the fresh air the most, as they are the privileged class.Second Space consists of white collars, while Third Space literally takes careof the trash.
The main character comes from the Third Space, and the story is pretty uncomfortable.It's sad and frustrating to see such discrimination, and it's even sadder whenyou think it's all around us, too.


10. "Call Girl" by Tang Fei - ★★☆☆☆《黄色故事》糖匪
I did not understand this one. Yes, it's about a call girl, but as you're ledto believe she offers sex for money, you discover that's not the truth. She offerssomething else, and I cannot understand if she uses some kind of paranormalpower or some gadget.


11. "Grave of the Fireflies" by Cheng Jingbo - ★★☆☆☆《萤火虫之墓》程婧波
2.45 stars
This is fantasy with a drop of sci-fi. The stars are dying, so mankind isleaving their home-planet. During this journey, Rosamund is born, the daughterof the last Queen of men. The planet they colonize is ruled by a magician, and,in time, Rosamund meets him, while finding out more about her mother's past.
This felt rushed. As a full novel, it would have been amazing. Like this, itbarely begins when it ends.


12. "The Circle" by Liu Cixin - ★★★☆☆《圆》刘慈欣
At first, I found this a little hard to understand. I kept thinking about allthose people with their flags and what was all about, but it all eluded me.Then came the twist at the end and I was left speechless. That was a greattwist!
P.S. Read this as my neighbors had their music on maximum volume. >.


13. "Taking Care of God" by Liu Cixin - ★☆☆☆☆《赡养上帝》刘慈欣
You know God? In Cixin's vision, God is an ancient civilization that madehumans only in order to have someone take care of them once they're old anddecrepit. That's like parents having children only so that someone takes careof them in their old age. To say that I didn't like this story is anunderstatement. Respect is earned, not assumed. And you cannot make somebodytake care of you.
P.S. My neighbors are still annoying the crap out of me with their music.>.< 


*I thank Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Netgalley for this copy in exchange foran honest review.


Nov 08, 2016 Brad rated it really liked it 
Shelves: sci-fi, space-opera, worldbuilding-sf, 2016-shelf 
Thanks to Netgalleyfor the ARC!


There were quite a few interesting stories in thisvolume. It isn't considered a "Best-Of" collection by a long shot,but it does happen to give us westerners a taste of modern Chinese SF in theform it has now become. I won't say that a few were breaking any molds oranything, but there are a few things to consider.


Such as? Well, SF as a whole is generally less respectedin China than it is over here with one exception. 


Liu Cixin is followed by the Chinese internet like awildfire, sparking conversations and discussions across the board much to theamazement of the author. Even the engineers that had been the butt of hiscomments have taken up the book to rave about it. I personally loved histrilogy, the first of which won the Hugo over here. Another first, by the way.


So it's not that big a surprise that curiosity set inamong us westerners, right? That's the whole purpose of this book. To give usall a chance to see what kind of glories are happening in the field over there.We even get an excerpt from Liu Cixin's The Three-BodyProblem and an awesome story called "Taking Care ofGod" (Which is both tongue-in-cheek and a serious read.)


His are my favorites.


BUT, I really shouldn't neglect mentioning the lyricaland metaphor-heavy Hard-SF tale of survival among the death of stars in ChengJingbo's "Grave of Fireflies" or Hao Jingfang's "FoldingBeijing", a tale of social stratification meeting a crazy actual science-fictionalfolding of the city.


I also really enjoyed MA Boyong's "The City ofSilence". It's a modern retelling of 1984, but more than that, it takes the entireconcept of language modification to its limits. I was told not to read it as asatire and so I didn't, and because I read it as a serious tale set in aserious way... it freaked me the hell out. Truly, what a nightmare. This onemight stay with me a while. I was tempted to relegate it to the pile of similaroppressive dystopians, but no. It took several aspects and ran with it sosolidly that I think it deserves plenty of accolades. :)


I totally recommend this for curious people. I even recommendit for fans of clever SF. :)