#RRSciFiMonth: Invisible Planets by Ken Liu

Invisible Planets by Ken Liu

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

Genre: Sci-Fi, Short Stories

Publisher: Tor Books on November 1, 2016

Source: Publisher

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My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.

Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China.

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This post is part of Sci-Fi Month 2016, a month long event to celebrate science fiction hosted by Rinn Reads and Over the Effing Rainbow. Follow along on Twitter via the official @SciFiMonth Twitter account, or with the hashtag #RRSciFiMonth.

The whole point of Sci-Fi Month has been to stretch myself and try new things, and I think it’s safe to say that goal has been met after finishing INVISIBLE PLANETS. This short fiction anthology collects some of the newest voices in Chinese science fiction, many of whom have never before been translated into English. I’ve been really curious about Chinese science fiction ever since Cixin Liu’s THE THREE BODY PROBLEM burst onto the English-language scene a few years ago, and I now feel like I have a much better grasp on it.

China Dreams,” Ken Liu’s introduction to the anthology, warns readers away from a simplistic understanding of what exactly makes sci-fi Chinese. Just like China itself, the country’s sci-fi has a multiplicity of styles, themes, underlying concerns, and politics embedded within it. That said, reading the stories contained within this anthology has given me a greater understanding of the hopes and concerns that preoccupy young(er) sci-fi writers in China — and it’s also whet my appetite for further exploration of Chinese science fiction!

I enjoyed all of the stories in this anthology, but my favourites were unquestionably those written by Xia Jia. Beautifully written, with a touch of the fantastical, Jia’s stories transported me to worlds not quite our own. Spiritualism and religion play a large part in the three stories of hers included in the anthology, and I found myself captured by her portrayal of gods and monsters alike. Jia’s skill is hardly surprising — she’s the first person to hold a PhD in comparative literature focusing on Chinese science fiction. How cool is that?!

Very different in tone from Xia Jia’s work, Hao Jingfang’s stories “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Planets” were also among my favourites in the anthology. “Invisible Planets” is an ingenious story about the art of storytelling itself: the entire piece is narrated by someone telling their listener the story of many planets and the people who live on them. Do these planets really exist, and has the storyteller really visited them? Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as the telling. This story gave me chills with its incisive commentary on our tendency to pass judgement on cultures that we don’t understand. One line in particular stood out to me:

“Their histories play out on two time scales, each echoing the other. But they remain opaque to each other, unaware that when it comes to time, everyone is only measuring the universe using the ruler of their own lifespan.”

Short story anthologies can be tricky to pull off, and often there are at least one or two short stories that aren’t up to par — but that’s not the case with INVISIBLE PLANETS. Although I’ve only specifically addressed two authors (with five stories between them), that’s not because I don’t have anything to say about the others; in fact, it’s the opposite. I want you to have the opportunity to discover these stories for yourself. From hard sci-fi to a kind technological magical realism and everything in between, this anthology has something for every reader.

Complex and challenging, INVISIBLE PLANETS is a must-read for fans of the genre and anyone who wants to expand their reading horizons into territories previously unexplored. I know that I, for one, will be reflecting on this thought provoking read for a long time to come.

Have you read any Chinese science fiction? How about non-Western sci-fi? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Sounds like a really good anthology. Thanks for the great review!

    • It was! Sometimes the stories in an anthology can be a mixed bag, but I really enjoyed all of them this time around. 🙂

  • Wow, this sounds really interesting. I don’t read all that many anthologies, I do think this sounds pretty interesting though. I mean, I’ve never even really heard of chinese sci-fi outside of the Three Body Problem. I think i may have to investigate. I can see why it’s getting so popular from some of the stories you’ve mentioned, they sound just so interesting. I think they’ve managed to get a new interpretation of the sci-fi genre since it’s influenced by a different culture and I think that would be really cool to read.

    Off to see if I can hunt down a copy.

    • Right? I hadn’t heard much about it either, which of course makes me realize how few books I’ve been reading by non-white authors. Depressing as hell, and something to be corrected in 2017 for sure!

      Yeah, I think so too. There are definitely some similar concerns in Western and Chinese sci-fi (based on this very small sampling, haha) but one of the interesting ones that kept cropping up in this anthology was the importance of linguistic differences, and just how many dialects there are. It was really cool!

      Hopefully you can get your hands on one, Becky!

      • I kind of think reading diverse authors may be a goal of 2017 for me as well. The thing is I never really know anything about the authors when I choose to read a book, I just want to know if the book sounds interesting rather than who write it.

        It sounds dead interesting so hopefully I’ll find a copy but it’ll definitely have to wait until next year.

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    It’s true that we need to carry our imagination even further, now and then, and not seek only what is known and trusted: this sounds like the perfect opportunity to do a little… mind stretching, reaching out toward new and different horizons.
    Very intriguing review, thank you for sharing! 🙂

    • Couldn’t agree more! I’ve been really slacking lately when it comes to pushing myself and expanding my reading horizons, so I’m pretty pleased that I was able to squeeze this one in.

      No problem, Maddalena! 🙂

  • Chinese sci-fi, I can’t say I have

  • I love that this is an anthology of Chinese sci-fi stories. I honestly can’t say that I have read any! But I’m intrigued because I can only begin to imagine all the potential. You especially make a strong case of Xia Jie’s stories! I like that there’s elements of religion to them too. I’m very fascinated by religion, especially ones I don’t know much about.
    Lovely review, Danya!

    • When I saw this pop up on NetGalley I knew right away that I had to request it, haha. I don’t read enough short fiction these days and I’m definitely not reading as many authors of colour as I’d like, so this was the perfect opportunity for me.

      Me too! I took a few religion classes in undergrad and was really intrigued by them (even though — or maybe especially because — I’m not religious). Thanks, Nick!

  • Greg Hill

    I don’t think I’ve read any Chinese SF but I’d love to, and this looks like a great place to start. Nice to see TOR putting this out, and I hope we keep seeing more Asian SF.

    • I’m pretty happy with starting here, honestly! Since I’m not a seasoned sci-fi reader, I think The Three Body Problem might’ve been a bit too intense of an introduction to Chinese sci-fi for me, but now I feel ready to give it a go. 🙂

  • I’d never heard of this book before! I admit, I have not read any Chinese science fiction. D: But then, I also have not read any science fiction anthologies. I must fix that!

    Great review, Danya! =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • Same to both, Alyssa! Haha. That’s the beauty of Sci-Fi Month: it really pushed me to read outside of my comfort zone.

      Thank you! 🙂

  • I’ve read the whole Three-body trilogy, but have been reluctant to try Ken Liu’s stuff, because it seems he writes about slightly different things. But I guess an anthology IS different and perhaps I should check it out 🙂

    • From what I’ve seen other bloggers say, it seems like Ken Liu is one of those authors who you either love or hate — and it’s all down to stylistic preferences. I’d never read any of his work before this but I quite enjoyed the essay he has in this one!

      Let me know what you think if you end up picking it up. 🙂

  • Lynn Williams

    I’ve not read the Three body series but would like to eventually. I have read The Grace of Kings by this author thought and loved it. I probably won’t pick this one up in the long run as short stories/anthologies are not always my thing but that’s just a personal preference – your review certainly does make this one sound very interesting and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    Lynn 😀

    • Ooooh The Grace of Kings! Admittedly, I’m pretty intimidated by that book. It’s just so long! Hahaha. Yeah, short fiction is definitely not for everyone — but I love it and I thought this was a solid addition.

      Thanks you, Lynn! 🙂

  • This sounds like a really great way to dip my toe into Chinese Sci Fi of which I haven’t read any. I own The Three Body Problem but may start with this anthology to ease into it. So appreciative to Ken Liu for being on a mission to bring Chinese SFF to English speakers’ attention!

    • Speaking from experience, yes it is! Haha. I was really intimidated by Three Body prior to reading this anthology, but I feel more ready for it now. And three cheers for Chinese sci-fi! Definitely something I’d like to explore more in the future.

  • This looks great! I really enjoyed The Three Body Problem, and so think I will enjoy this too! I added it to my TBR! Tori @ In Tori Lex

    • Oh, you’ve read Three Body? I’m so glad you liked it Tori, because it’s on my TBR list too. Hopefully you enjoy this one if you get the chance to pick it up!