Invisible Planets is an interesting and varied anthology of thirteen speculative short fiction stories and three essays by seven contemporary Chinese authors, translated into English by Ken Liu. As Liu mentions in the Introduction, several of these stories have won U.S. awards (most notably the 2016 Hugo Award for best novelette, given to Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing) and have been included in “Year’s Best” anthologies. Chinese fantasy and science fiction is richly diverse, and this collection amply proves that. While there is political commentary in some of these stories, it would be, as Liu comments, doing these works a disservice to assume that they can be reduced to metaphors about Chinese politics. These stories offer insights not just into Chinese thought and culture, but about life and humanity generally, which is what the best science fiction and fantasy does.
Tadiana reviews the first seven stories below, Kat reviews Liu Cixin’s “The Circle,” in order to add her perspective from a computer programming point of view, and Jana reviews the rest, with occasional comments added to one another’s reviews.
“The Year of the Rat” by Chen Qiufan. Genetically engineered rats, rodents of unusual size and intelligence, and programmed with certain behaviors (like walking upright), are exported from China as luxury pets. When a mass escape of rats from their farms occurs ― whether by accident or as a political ploy ― and the rats’ genetic limitations on reproduction begin to break down, they create a threat to the country. Unemployed college students, like the narrator, are enlisted to hunt and kill the Neorats. But the hunting and the killing turn out to be more difficult than expected: the rats’ intelligence makes them difficult to trap, and some of the students begin to question the morality of the cause. Among other things, this story explores how our ideas and perceptions can be manipulated, whether by rats, love interests, or hidden political powers.
“The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan. A workaholic office worker, stressed and burned out, is placed on a mandatory two-week leave and sent to the beautiful historic city of Lijiang, now a center for rehabilitation. He meets a girl there and they begin spending time together, seeing the sights, playing drinking games, listening to strange Naxi music, watching the red fish hover in the waterways, struggling against the current to maintain their positions. The girl opens the narrator’s eyes to some high tech tricks that are being foisted on unsuspecting workers. The class themes in “The Fish of Lijiang” are echoed in the later story Folding Beijing, which I felt handled that theme more creatively, but the repeated symbol of the fish was thought-provoking.
“The Flower of Shazui” by Chen Qiufan. An engineer, on the run from a failed criminal scheme at his prior job, has made a new life in Shazui Village, selling black market augmented-reality software and “body films,” a thin film applied to people’s bodies that displays words or pictures. When Snow Lotus, a lovely high class prostitute, needs his services one day for a malfunction in her body film, he finds out about the troubles in her life and decides to use his high tech skills to assist her. This story, set in an alternate reality version of the Shenzhen Bay area, juxtaposes hard science fiction and high tech with the underside of society and its desperate and very human problems.
“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” by Xia Jia. Ning was left on the steps of a temple as a baby, and was picked up and adopted by the ghosts who dwell on Ghost Street, a long, narrow street inhabited only by the ghosts ― and Ning, who loves them. Ghost Street is a defunct tourist attraction: no tourists come any more, and the buildings are falling to pieces. Gradually it becomes apparent that Ghost Street is a type of Westworld amusement park: the souls of real people have been fused into mechanical bodies that mimic some of the characteristics of actual ghosts: they cannot stand direct sunlight, which burns them irreparably; they can remove their heads and put them back on again.
Before she became a ghost, Xiao Qian tells me, she lived a very full life. … And then her children got sick, one after another. In order to raise the money to pay the doctors, Xiao Qian sold herself 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 sealed inside a female ghost’s body. Her children died anyway.
Ning thinks he is the only living being on Ghost Street, but it may be that there is something artificial about Ning as well. “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” is a lovely, bittersweet tale, enhanced by Xia Jia’s wonderful imagery. This is a story that confused me at first (I initially missed the shift from fantasy to science fiction), but once I understood the premise, I reread it with tremendous pleasure. It’s a magical but sad world, left behind in society’s unceasing search for newer, more sensational amusements.
“Tongtong’s Summer” by Xia Jia. Tongtong’s Grandpa, who can no longer live on his own, moves in with her family. Grandpa grumpily resists getting a caretaker, so Tongtong’s father decides to try out a prototype robot caregiver, which they call Ah Fu. One day Tongtong begins conversing with Ah Fu, and finds out that the robot is remotely controlled by Wang, a university student working in R&D at the robot manufacturer’s facilities. Grandpa’s temper continues to worsen, until Wang comes up with a creative solution.
This is a fairly straightforward tale that sensitively explores the needs and concerns of the elderly in a near-future science fictional setting. I was especially moved by the author’s note at the end, dedicating this story to “all the grandmas and grandpas who, each morning, can be seen in parks practicing tai chi, twirling swords, singing opera, dancing … You made me understand that living with an awareness of the closeness of death is nothing to be afraid of.”
Jana: All of Xia Jia’s featured pieces were emotionally affective for me, particularly “Tongtong’s Summer,” because Tongtong’s character and her relationship with her Grandpa were so well-written. The Ah Fu prototype is especially interesting because the technological seeds of a “robot caretaker” already exist: the internal resistance which smooths out Grandpa’s motions inside the controller suit is akin to the gyroscopes implemented in cutlery for people with Parkinson’s; robots with interactive screens can go to school as surrogates for ill or otherwise infirm children; and using a wall-screen to communicate remotely is no different from video-conferencing or Skyping. The ending and author’s note are, indeed, moving, and I’d recommend keeping a few tissues on hand just in case.
“Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” by Xia Jia. A huge, ancient and rusted dragon-horse awakens from a long sleep to find a desolate world from which humans have disappeared. Where cars once filled the street like a river of steel, lush trees now dance in the wind. The dragon-horse begins a journey to explore this changed world. He befriends a chatty bat, and they exchange stories as they travel. It’s a leisurely tale, a melancholy tale, a poetic meditation on the effects of passage of time. As a bonus, Xia Jia provides links for some YouTube videos to an actual robotic dragon-horse, built by France and gifted to China to commemorate the friendship between their nations, which inspired this story.
“The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong. In the year 2046, the State tightly controls the lives of its inhabitants, in a polluted, stagnant world. People’s lives are solitary and rather empty, with the Web as the main vehicle for human interaction. They are only allowed to use “healthy words” in their communications in person or online. Originally a list of forbidden words deemed unhealthy (for example, “tired,” “love,” “movement,” and all sexual and curse words), now it is a list of the words that people are permitted to say or write. And the List of Healthy Words gets shorter every day. People’s speech is constantly monitored and policed by the state.
Arvardan applies to use the BBS forums, but they don’t contain any more interesting speech or ideas than he normally sees. However, he notices that the documents given him by a woman working in the Department of Web Security contain a hidden message … and a dangerous invitation.
Evidently inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, which is discussed in one of the meetings of the Talking Club that Arvardan joins, “The City of Silence” takes the concept of thought police and applies it to a technological age. As one of the characters comments, “technology is neutral. But the progress of technology will cause a free world to become freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.” Arvardan and his friends know and can still think the words that the State now deems unhealthy, but one wonders what will become of the next generation in Ma Boyong’s nightmarish society.
“Invisible Planets,” by Hao Jingfang. One of many recently-published short SF/F pieces which take inspiration from Italo Colvino’s classic novel Invisible Cities, and the source of this anthology’s title, “Invisible Planets” describes numerous worlds populated by creatures both strange and familiar. Liu describes it as “fabulist,” and I think that’s the best descriptor for the story. As the characteristics of each planet, its inhabitants, and their histories are listed, you can almost hear the soothing, sing-song voice of the narrator as you (the conversation partner, also included in the narrative) are transported throughout distant galaxies. The overall tone is slightly bittersweet: perfection in any society is impossible, but that knowledge shouldn’t stop anyone from experiencing and enjoying beauty and the wonder of first discovery.
Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang (previously reviewed by Marion and Tadiana). Winner of the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novelette, this story examines literal class division via a wondrous city that folds into the ground and the various people that live and work within its buildings. Lao Dao is a sanitation worker living in Third Space, the section of the city which supports the people of Second and First Space; Third Space has the largest population, over 51 million people, and yet they have the hardest lives and constantly struggle just to make ends meet. Lao Dao’s dream is for his small daughter Tangtang to attend a music and dance academy, but in order to finance such a lofty dream, he must break the law by first meeting with an ambitious student who lives in Second Space and deliver a letter to a wealthy woman living in First Space. The amount in question is an impossibly high sum for him, and yet is the kind of money that First Spacers consider pocket change.
The mechanisms of the folding city are well-described, but Hao’s primary focus is on the class differences separating the people of Beijing. Things like money any quality of food, even access to sunlight, are taken for granted by the wealthy and are exponentially more treasured as one climbs down the economic ladder, and one’s height of social class is directly inverse to the amount of work expended by the individual in question. This isn’t to say that those at the top are completely inhuman: one First Space character is clearly mindful that his section of the city is completely dependent upon Third Space and its workers, and that those workers must have access to employment, even though it may be back-breaking and thankless work. Lao Dao cares so much about his little girl that he’s willing to do anything to give her a better life, even risk imprisonment for transgressing outside his assigned Space, and his efforts are both sympathetic and admirable in this lovely, imaginative, astute story.
“Call Girl,” by Tang Fei. An interesting story with unexpected twists about a teenaged girl and the older gentlemen she entertains. The set-up and title are misleading, in a good way, but I’d like to know more about how her dog-whistle pendant and stories work. Tang provides so many tantalizing details in a short amount of text, and I’d like just a little more clarity so that I can fully appreciate everything that occurs.
“Grave of the Fireflies,” by Cheng Jingbo. Cheng blends elements of fairy tales from across the globe in this absolutely wondrous fairy tale about a princess, her mother, and a collection of refugees traveling through a cooling universe. Their planet has been transformed “into an Ark” to carry what remains of humanity because no one can determine why stars are dying, but after Princess Rosamund’s people arrive at a new planet, Weightless City, she and her mother step into a giant robot and receive astonishing answers. This is a complex, multi-layered, ornate story, and a genuine pleasure to read.
Kat: “The Circle,” by Liu Cixin. Liu Cixin’s “The Circle” is set in China in 227 BC. When Jing Ke, a learned man from a neighboring dynasty, refuses to assassinate King Zheng as he’s been instructed, King Zheng recognizes that Jing Ke is not only noble, but highly educated and intelligent, so he hires him as an advisor. King Zheng is eager to extend his lifespan and thinks that Jing Ke, who is studying the mathematical properties of nature, will someday learn the secrets of eternal life. To this end, Jing Ke is trying to calculate all the digits of pi, but it’s slow-going until, under pressure, he comes up with a brilliant idea which he implements to everyone’s satisfaction… until it goes wrong. At the end of this clever story, we’re left with the realization that great leaps in human progress often come from sudden flashes of insight and that the only thing that limits us is the shortness of our lifespans.
“The Circle” will be especially appealing to those who have a basic understanding of computer hardware and software and concepts such as binary code, Boolean algebra, RAM, firewall, etc. I think it would be a great story to assign to a beginning computer science class and will be mentioning it to a colleague of mine who teaches CS courses at my university. (And, hey, she’s Chinese!)
Jana: Even though I know very little about computer programming, I enjoyed “The Circle” because Liu writes so clearly that I could visualize everything that was taking place, and picturing men with flags moving in precise patterns is easier for me than whatever mysterious alchemy is happening inside my internet machine. Liu makes it all seem so plausible, even within the context of China’s Warring States Period, since we have no way of knowing what concepts and technologies have been lost to the dust of time and history.
“Taking Care of God,” by Liu Cixin. Massive spaceships appear in orbit around Earth without warning and the passengers, announcing themselves as humanity’s progenitors and collectively referred to as Gods, are sent to live with families all over the planet in exchange for access to their wildly advanced technology. Three years later, the shine has worn off the apple, and the adoptive families chafe against the changes brought on by caring for an elderly person who doesn’t know how to fit into their new surroundings. This excellent story has a little bit of everything I like: social commentary, sly humor, and speculation about humanity’s origins and place in the universe. Liu provides an honest, thoughtful examination of the initial joys and gradual friction brought on by caring for an elderly family member, as well as the confusion and frustration felt by people who once had limitless freedom and now simply want to be taken care of by their descendants.
Tadiana: Liu Cixin’s two stories were among those in this anthology that impressed me the most. “Taking Care of God” uses a science fictional setting to explore the interrelationship between the youthful and the aging, both on an individual level and on a macro level, as we see here how an entire civilization echoes the aging process. There is frustration and some understandable self-interest on both ends of the spectrum. As bad as the elder abuse gets in some situations, it hits hard when one of the Gods explains that they have been treated even worse in the past. Their urgent advice to humanity in the end was an interesting and unexpected turn in the narrative.
The first, by Liu Cixin, is titled “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths…” and examines the success and impact of his trilogy, REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST, specifically within the science-fiction genre and within his country. Liu’s evaluation of the trilogy’s success and its reception in China is as thoughtful as his fiction, with a measure of hope for what directions the genre can take and where humanity might go as the future continues to unfold.
The second essay, “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Translation” by Chen Quifan, provides insight from “a former googler” into social progress, the role literature can play in changing ideals, and “China in transformation.” Chen is both insightful and, like Liu Cixin, hopeful for the future.
Finally, Xia Jia’s “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?” asks a difficult question without a solid answer, though Xia makes a strong effort at providing an overview of the genre in China over the last century or so. She does a great job of informing and educating Western readers who may not be familiar with the unique perspectives of Chinese authors, and I would consider this to be essential reading for anyone who seeks a broader perspective on science fiction.
Overall, Invisible Planets is an impressive collection of stories. Even though they’re all translated by the same person, each story is clearly distinct, and the authors’ individual styles and messages are easily discernable. Ken Liu has done the entire field of science fiction a tremendous service with his work here, both as an editor and translator, and we sincerely hope to be able to read many more translated works of Chinese science fiction in the months and years to come.