Fiction Reviews

Invisible Planets

(2016) Ken Liu (ed.), Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 383pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97880-8


Ken Liu continues his quest to introduce us to the very best of Chinese Science Fiction and in that, Invisible Planets does not disappoint.

The layout of this anthology which collect together ‘13 visions of the future from China’ is unusual. We have something of a showcase from each featured author who is given a biography page that stands out in its careful appreciation of the writer as opposed to the somewhat crammed introductions you might see in other anthologies. There are some discernible style differences between the different writers, but you also get a sense of each showing their variety.

Ken Liu introduces the collection by addressing the main question he is asked about Chinese Science Fiction, which is ‘how is it different?’ Liu sidesteps the query appropriately and then proceeds to show what we might expect from such writing and writers by introducing the stories in the collection. Ultimately, it is up to us to determine what is different and what is worth our time. That said, the essays at the anthology's end do go some way to contextualising the emergence of Chinese Science Fiction.

Chen Qiufan’s 'The Year of the Rat' is a particularly strong opening story that delivers a political message in relation to our objective isolation of our enemies. This makes use of a similar device as employed in the black mirror episode 'Men Against Fire'. However, Qiufan’s message is more nuanced, with a commentary on the futility of existence amidst the masses of humanity.

Xia Jia offers us more mythological and symbolic fare with 'A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight' and 'Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse'. There is a greater sense of character and location here then perhaps we see in Qiufan.

A standout story is Ma Boyong’s 'The City of Silence'. This knowingly plays on Orwell’s 1984 with several inter-textual references. However, this does not stop it being fresh and original and offering a new political message to proponents of invasive government and surveillance society.

The title story, 'Invisible Planets' by Hao Jingfang, is perhaps the one that made the least impression of me. We are given a selected set of tourist information or guide book entries on a variety of different invented worlds, interspersed with a conversation written in second person that gradually builds as to the purpose of the entries. There is a message here in relation to preserving societies and cultures that have no other means of being preserved than being passed on through a story, but this is something I have seen before in other works.

'Folding Beijing' is also reminiscent of Chiana Mieville’s The City and The City, but Jingfang is dealing with much more practically altered world than the cultural conditioning Mieville portrays.

Celebrated (including with Hugos) Science Fiction author Liu Cixin concludes the anthology with two stories 'The Circle' and 'Taking Care of God'.  Both are thought experiments that make the reader consider some of the larger questions that science fiction and fantasy can be used to confront. Cixin makes use of a historical Chinese context in the former, which any writer would appreciate and proposes a particularly unique premise in the latter, reversing our understanding of our creator(s).

Invisible Planets is an excellent introduction to Chinese Science Fiction and the subtleties of woven symbology and allegory as intellectual discourse. To characterise some this content as stories of protest would deny them their detail, layers and intelligence. They are not simply defiant, but there are messages to find and that inspire.

Allen Stroud

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