Updated on March 23, 2018
9. ‘Invisible Planets’ edited by Ken Liu
I’d seen this book around before I picked it up at my Mr B’s reading spa last year. It’s a collection of contemporary sci-fi short stories from Chinese writers, and it’s edited by Ken Liu, so of course it was on my radar. When I read it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this book doesn’t just include stories by popular Chinese writers, but also a few essays exploring what ‘Chinese science fiction’ really is.
Invisible Planets features stories by seven different Chinese writers; all of them are relatively new rising stars, with the exception of established giant Liu Cixin, who has been publishing sci-fi for decades. This collection was also edited by Ken Liu, who wrote one of my favourite books from last year, The Paper Menagerie. The stories range from myth-inspired tales, to future tech stories, to decidedly strange magical/religious tales. All in all, I thought the collection was pretty good, with a few gems peppered throughout.
Two of my favourite stories are about futuristic cities (interestingly, the book I read after this was The City and the City by China Miéville, which follows a similar theme). Ma Boyong’s ‘The City of Silence’ is about an oppressive society in which language has been pared down so drastically that its citizens are unable to speak subversively, and more and more words disappear by the day. There are clear nods to Orwell’s ‘newspeak’, as well as the always-enjoyable trope of ‘rebellious citizen in a dystopian state’. Hao Jingfang’s ‘Folding Beijing’ is about a new version of Beijing, which is divided into three ‘spaces’ where the different strata of society live (the richest, the poorest and those in the middle). The catch? The entire city regularly folds up so that only one of these spaces is above ground at a time.
I also really enjoyed Hao’s ‘Invisible Planets’, in which an unnamed narrator describes distant planets and their strange inhabitants (very like ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’ by Ken Liu in The Paper Menagerie). I skipped Liu Cixin’s ‘Cave of Fireflies’ because apparently it’s an extract from his novel The Three-Body Problem, which I have on my shelves and don’t want to spoil for myself. Liu’s other story in this collection, ‘Taking Care of God’, was really great: an ancient civilisation of godlike creatures, which created humans, return to Earth and ask us to look after them in their old age. I mean, there’s no doubting the brilliance of that concept!
The rest of the collection was quite enjoyable, but it didn’t really wow me until about halfway through. There were a couple of stories that I didn’t like at all, or that haven’t really stayed with me since reading them. The essays at the end are interesting; they point out the futility of trying to talk about ‘Chinese sci-fi’ as a single homogenous genre, but make a good go of delineating some of the themes and styles that could be argued to be recognisably Chinese.
There are plenty of awesome, mind-bending concepts to get your teeth into in Invisible Planets, as well as some fantastic stories. The collection is so varied, I really think there’s something for everyone in here.
“But since the technological change was already here, it was best to face the consequences and guide them to desirable ends.” – ‘Tongtong’s Summer’, Xia Jia
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Invisible Planets here.