Fiction Reviews

Broken Stars

(2019) Ken Liu (ed.), Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 479pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54810-6


A fabulous anthology of sixteen recent short stories by leading Chinese science fiction authors. These are diverse, and often highly poetic, coming across as highly original with some echoes of Western influences.

Anna Wu’s 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Laba Porridge' has a title undoubtedly borrowed from Douglas Adams.  The head chef being called Marvin adds to the sense of homage, but the story owes more to Chaucer than Adams. The Restaurant is genuinely located on the brink of the end of eternity. The weary diners who reach it can gain a free meal of their choice if Marvin enjoys their stories. Laba Porridge is the menu selection made by the teller of the opening tale of the book Wu has written. This serves as a tantalizing taster; perhaps an aperitif.

The diner tells of a writer, struggling with writer’s block, who has been to a special scientific agency who granted his wishes for the essence of the best poets, novelists, religious mystical text authors and others. He struggled to stop his new talents conflicting until the woman who loved him died tragically in his negligence and the warring strands united in grief to tell her story, rather than his.

This is a technology take on the ‘be careful what you wish for’ fairy tale, and the blurring of boundaries between science & fantasy fiction recurs in several of the stories.  'Fei Deo’s The Robot Who Liked To Tell Tall Tales' is another case in point. It tells of a young king, with a reputation for spinning fabulous yarns that no one believes. As being a compulsive liar makes his people doubt his sincere benevolent policies, he creates a robot programmed to find a bigger liar than he is. The robot’s quest plunges it through a black hole, to encounters with Death, and all manner of riddle-setting beings. The robot realizes that his master is actually simply totally honest and that the best life is the one that defies all belief and autobiography.

Other tales are more conventional, with time travel and alternative reality stories abounding.  'The First Emperor’s Games' by Ma Boyong has a feudal tyrant trying to amuse himself playing computer games. He enjoys Risk, until it predicts how relentless land-grabbing eventually turns the World against the ruthless player. Angry Birds and other games similarly get the advisers recommending them sent off for execution.

Liu Cixin has the protagonist of 'Moonlight' phone himself from the future with news that the World will end unless he takes credit for e-mailing out certain blueprint plans to save us all.  He is then phoned again to report how the plan failed and given new instructions, resulting in him spending a night doing nothing but saving and destroying the World over and over again, just by answering his phone and sending a few e-mail attachments.

Baoshu’s 'What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear' is a novella that deserves to be a novel. The major events of the 20th century are running backwards. Characters remember when they had the internet, the freedom gains from 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are undone, ruining the narrator’s academic career, before the Cultural Revolution, Korean War and later still, World War Two, (beginning as the Cold War ends) cut him off from the woman he loves (trapped on the other side of the World, unable to travel home due to the conflicts), and he look to the future as a golden age never to be revisited. The present becomes an oasis in a sea of tragedy, whether we look to future or past.

Not since reading Cordwainer Smith have I read stories that sparkle with so much philosophical profound wonder and fresh vitality.

A trio of invaluable essays close the book. Regina Kanya Wang summarizes the history of Chinese SF (also see SF² Concatenation's one here). A 1900 translation of the works of Jules Verne inspired many writers, including Lao She, author of the celebrated Cat Country from 1932, a satirical work in which spaceship crash survivors adapt to life in a Martian city ruled by cats.

Chinese SF faced oppression and outright banning during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and again later in 1983’s ban on ‘Anti-Spiritual Pollution’, which outlawed any form of pseudo-science, including SF (even though the genre was clearly labelled as fiction). This is a theme reflected in Baoshu’s story reviewed above too.

SF fandom groups started resurfacing in the 21st Century. An unsuccessful Beijing bid in 2014 to host the 2016 Worldcon (won by Kansas) has led to stronger international recognition of China as a major SF community.

The interesting element is that many Chinese authors have had limited access to the work of the previous generations due to the breaks and political changes between waves. Many writers have reinvented the genre from scratch rather than in continuity, giving each work a highly original perspective all of its own.

Arthur Chappell


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