There’s a tendency to think of science fiction as a uniquely – or at least primarily – Anglo-American phenomenon. During the 20th century, the most prominent sci-fi authors were either British or American. Moreover, they were, with a few exceptions, white males. Some writers, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, tried to incorporate non-Western philosophies like Taoism or Buddhism into their writing, but they were often the exception. Most sci-fi seemed firmly rooted in the Enlightenment. In the Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, scholars discuss racial and gender diversity in the genre, but still tend to focus on British or American authors. With few exceptions, no non-English sci-fi story has made an appreciable impact on Western audiences.
That is, until Liu Cixin The Three-Body Problem. When it was translated into English by Ken Liu (almost a decade after its release in China), the book won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2014 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Reviewers praise it for tackling Big Ideas in the spirit of Asimov or Clarke. Cixin’s novel seems to have opened the door to more Chinese sci-fi. Given that China already exports just about any and every good imaginable, it makes sense that it would also export its sci-fi and pop culture.
Invisible Planets: : Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation taps into this newfound interest in Chinese sci-fi. The book is a collection of short stories by several Chinese authors, including two by Liu Cixin. The stories range from “hard” sci-fi in the vein of Asimov (“The Circle”) to fantastical stories that rely more on magic than technology (“Call Girl”). Some of the stories engage very closely with themes in Western sci-fi (Ma Boyong’s “The City of Silence” is a riff on 1984), while others, such as Chen Quifan’s “The Year of the Rat,” speak very directly to contemporary Chinese concerns.
This raises the inevitable question of what makes these Chinese sci-fi stories “Chinese” (aside from the language). To what extent does it matter that the authors are Chinese? These stories inevitably include references to Chinese cultural norms, such as respect for elders, and some engagement with the issues and insecurities of 21st century China. For example, the stories in general seem more conscious of class than most Western sci-fi (especially Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” which uses sci-fi imagery to literalize class distinctions). At the end of the book, Ken Liu includes three interesting essays from Chinese sci-fi scholars and authors discussing the nature of Chinese sci-fi.
However, I suspect most readers won’t find any unifying trait or theme that makes these stories “Chinese.” In his introduction to the work, Ken Liu makes clear that the stories are not and should not be taken as “representative” of Chinese sci-fi. Indeed, Ken states that he selected these stories because he thought they would be more accessible to Western audiences. Perhaps that is the most interesting thing Invisible Planets can tell Americans about “Chinese” sci-fi. Chinese sci-fi authors are telling a variety of sci-fi stories. The stories are as diverse as one would expect for a nation of over 1.3 billion people. Approaching this book as a collection of “Chinese” sci-fi probably makes about as much sense as grouping Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kim Stanley Robinson as “American” sci-fi authors.
The stories in Invisible Planets are translated by Ken Liu, and for the most part the translations are quite fluid. The writing probably loses much of its poetry in translation, but it is always clear.
Invisible Planets was published on November 1, 2016.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.