book reviews by Althea

Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation – Ken Liu, ed.

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Introduction: Chinese Science Fiction in Translation

**** Chen Qiufan – The Year of the Rat
In an economically depressed near-future, college graduates are recruited to military platoons in order to fight genetically-modified rats. Intended as pets for export, the creatures are invasive – but show disturbing signs of intelligence. Although rat-catching is less than glamorous, the military trappings of the outfit go to the heads of some members of the platoon – and fellow humans may end up being the real danger. Nicely done. “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” goes MilSF?

**** Chen Qiufan – The Fish of Lijiang
Melancholy and dystopic. New labor laws require that an overworked and exhausted employee take a mandatory rehabilitation break in the famous, historic city of Lijiang. At first, a bit of R&R doesn’t seem like a bad thing – especially when he meets an attractive, friendly woman in town. But Lijiang’s been retooled into a paradise of artifice, and its saccharin flavor has a bitter undertone. There are unpleasant revelation about why so many workers are in need of rehab, and nothing is quite what it seems.

**** Chen Qiufan – The Flower of Shazui
Set in a near-future Shenzhen, the story follows a man who’s tormented by the secrets of his past. He suspects that his ‘clever’ plan to get ahead may not have worked out, in more ways than one. Seeking to atone, he comes up with yet another well-intentioned but perhaps overly-complex scheme.
After reading these three stories by Chen Qiufan, I’m definitely interested in reading the author’s novel, which Ken Liu is currently translating.

**** Xia Jia – A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight
Weird and elegiac. A child is cared for in an abandoned tourist attraction peopled by robotic ‘ghosts,’ containing the consciousnesses of people who had to sell themselves into this strange commercial servitude.

** Xia Jia – Tongtong’s Summer
Previously read in ‘Upgraded.’
Then I gave it three stars and wrote:
“A young girl’s grandfather comes home from the hospital, accompanied by a new & experimental home health care “robot.” The device is not actually a true robot, but a remote-operated device that allows a distant care worker to be ‘on-call’ as needed. The device ends up revolutionizing society, but not exactly in the way that was expected. The main idea here is a sweet but idealistic call to respect the elderly and to develop technology that will make them more able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the ‘call to arms’ overwhelms the actual story, and at times it crosses a line into feeling like a piece of government propaganda.”
Upon re-reading I’m downgrading to two stars, not because of the ‘propaganda’ aspect but just because the sentimental story is a thin veneer over the “ideas about the future of elder care.” It’s not that the ideas are bad, it’s just not very successful as a good work of fiction.

** Xia Jia – Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse
A decaying cybernetic beast walks slowly and aimlessly through a post-apocalyptic landscape devoid of humans. On its journey, it meets a talking bat that’s fond of poetry. More of a mood piece than a story; it didn’t really do it for me.

*** Ma Boyong – The City of Silence
An homage to 1984, which attempts to show how the technology that’s been developed since Orwell’s day might change (and exacerbate) the repressive techniques of an oppressive state.
“Technology is neutral. But the process of technology will cause a free world to become ever freer, and a totalitarian world to become ever more repressive.”
It has some interesting thoughts on how individuals, while despising the system, can simultaneously be agents of that system. But overall, I’m not sure how much it really has to add to Orwell (who did it well.)
Still, this is a genre that I love.

*** Hao Jingfang – Invisible Planets
An homage to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Much like the original, the text describes different cultures and interactions to illuminate the vagaries of human nature, each supposedly illustrative of a different planet. The anecdotes are intercut with dialogue between the storyteller and the listener, commenting on the nature and meaning of narrative. It’s well-done: both imaginative and thoughtful – but it’s not the first time I’ve seen it done.

***** Hao Jingfang – Folding Beijing
Previously read in Rich Horton’s “Year’s Best…”
Visually, the shifting skyscrapers of ‘Folding Beijing’ brought to mind the film ‘Dark City,’ but the mechanics of this scenario are all-too-human, and underlaid with a cynical observation that “they would do this if they could.” Europe has taken one approach to the ‘problem’ of automation advances making menial jobs practically obsolescent. Here, Hao Jingfang theorizes what China might do. This future city, a technological marvel, has a strict caste system, which the reader sees through the eyes of one waste worker, who’s willing to flout the law in order to try to earn some money to better his adopted daughter’s future. As we gain insight into the perspectives of people in each of three very different Beijings, the parallels with our real-life society become clear. And oh, it’s also a heart-wrenching tale, vividly illustrating how the scale of people’s dreams can differ exponentially, and how the few at the top sit comfortably on a throne crafted from the misery of the many.
The one thing, though, that made me feel positive about this story is that I couldn’t help seeing it as a sequel to Kelly Robson’s “Two-Year Man” ( I know, none of the details match, but it does have the lowly worker adopting a foundling, and well, the outcome here is undoubtedly better that it is bound to have been in Robson’s story!
I also think that any fans of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction, especially, perhaps, “Yellow Card Man” will particularly enjoy Hao Jingfang’s offering.

*** Tang Fei – Call Girl
Previously read in Rich Horton’s “Year’s Best…”
A schoolgirl moonlights as… is it as a prostitute? Or as something much rarer and more strange? I hope to be able to read more by this author.

**** Cheng Jingbo – Grave of the Fireflies
Beautiful writing! Far-future sci-fi meets fairytale, in this story of a refugee girl, who, along with her mother the Queen, and all of her people, flees a region of dying stars through an ‘asteroid gate’ known as the ‘Door Into Summer.’
I would love to see more from this author.

*** Liu Cixin – The Circle
Previously read in “Carbide-Tipped Pens.” Re-read, as this was my favorite part of ‘Three-Body Problem.”
“Credited as an ‘adaptation’ of an excerpt from Liu Cixin’s recently-translated ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I recently read the novel, so I was slightly taken aback when, after a different set-up, I suddenly found myself re-reading some very, very familiar passages.
The author is enamored of the idea of creating a non-electronic ‘computer’ using binary rules. After all, it’s just math, and not technically dependent on technology. The iteration of the idea found here may actually be stronger than the one in the novel.”

*** Liu Cixin – Taking Care of God
Original! Science fiction retreads a lot of ideas repeatedly, but this is a variation I haven’t encountered before. Earth is re-visited by our creators – an alien race who seeded our planet with life. Now, their civilization is in decline; their long-lived individuals senescent. Their mighty deeds are in the past; most of their knowledge forgotten. And they expect humanity, their children, to take care of them in their old age.
The story is by turns, funny, poignant and prescriptive, as the analogy of duty to ones elders plays out. More than any other selection in this book, I found this one to be distinctly culturally Chinese.

The brief essays included at the end of the volume give three of the authors the opportunity to air their thoughts on Chinese Science Fiction, its characteristics, and its place in the world and world literature. Interesting perspectives.

The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction – Liu Cixin
The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition – Chen Qiufan
What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese? – Xia Jia

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are independent and unaffected by the source of the book.


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