Invisible Planets – Ken Liu

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets

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Summary

A collection of science fiction by Chinese authors, translated by Ken Liu.

Review

Recent Chinese science fiction essentially came to my notice via Ken Liu's translations in Clarkesworld. I enjoyed what I found, and picked up this book with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm was largely, but not entirely, satisfied.

I don't speak any form of Chinese, and certainly don't read it, so I'm dependent on translation for my access to Chinese works. That's always frustrating; no matter how good the translator, there's a lot of nuance that's lost, and much is dependent on the translation approach. I've found Liu's translations to be literate and intelligent, but dry. That's largely true of his own English fiction as well, and it's true of the stories here - to an extent that 340 pages of it felt more flat than exciting.

The stories are virtually all well written, but Liu's introduction sets the somewhat clinical tone that much of the book follows. He argues that there is no such thing as 'Chinese science fiction'. The argument is fair enough, but is so academic that I wondered exactly what audience he had in mind, and he repeats the point several times. The discussion would have been better off in the essays at the end of the book, which are equally aggressive about not taking a firm point of view, and which engage a far different part of the mind than the one that reads SFF for fun.

So, a slow start, but the stories themselves are more enjoyable, and the thumbnail sketches of each author were helpful. The best of the book were:

  • The Fish of Lijiang, by Chen Qiufan. In a controlled society, what choices do we really have? While the story could have used a stronger ending, it's still a good read.
  • notableTongTong's Summer, by Xia Jia. A look at remotely guided elder assistance. This was one of the stories I'd read before, and it stuck with me. Unlike the preceding story in the anthology by Xia Jia, it's focused, well-rounded, and moving.
  • The City of Silence, by Ma Boyong. A study in censorship. Very reminiscent of 1984 in both tone and concept, but still effective and interesting.
  • Invisible Planets, by Hao Jingfang. A description of selected planets. Very reminiscent in tone and structure of Liu's own story, "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species", but with more of a resolution.
  • notableThe Circle, by Liu Cixin. An analog approach to computing and duty. I've read this twice before - as a standalone, and as part of Liu's book Three Body Problem. I like it a lot (and wish the novel itself had been better).
  • Taking Care of God, by Liu Cixin. Earth's creators come back to visit. While the concept here is a very familiar one, the tone of Liu's story makes this work.

Other stories were also generally good, and only one, by Tang Fei, really didn't work for me. If you haven't encountered Chinese science fiction in translation, pick this up. However, as another commenter noted, the stories are overwhelmingly male-oriented. As the translator and authors argue so hard, this may not be representative of Chinese work, but it's interesting nonetheless.

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