Ken Liu’s 2019 Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation is an anthology of translated contemporary Chinese SF.
Each story comes with a brief introduction re the story’s author.
Introduction • (2017) • essay by Ken Liu
The editor lays out the scope of this follow-up to Invisible Planets. This anthology covers more authors, at the cost of fewer stories from each author.
Goodnight, Melancholy • (2017) • novelette by Xia Jia
This tale is intercut with a fable featuring Alan Turing. An AI in the form of a children’s toy assists a young person to deal with their crushing melancholy.
Xia Jia is my favourite Chinese SF author at present. Her stories are appealingly human.
“Moonlight” • short fiction by Cixin Liu
A heartbroken man receives a phone call from a future self, a self determined to save the world from ill-advised technological decisions. But are there any decisions that are not ill-advised?
There are many SF stories about phone calls from the future and this is one of them. Liu has the sort of entrenched pessimism and shaky grasp of science that would make him a natural fit with Stephen Baxter.
“Broken Stars” • (2016) • short story by Tang Fei
Haunted by a pale woman, targeted by the class bully, young student Jiaming struggles to change fate itself.
Strictly speaking not SF. It would make an interesting film if handled well.
“Submarines” • short fiction by Han Song
Rural peasants discover an innovative way to migrate to cities; the authorities in turn find an innovative way to discourage them.
The manner in which peasants are portrayed (as aliens and others) is somewhat condescending and Dickensian.
“Salinger and the Koreans” • (2016) • short story by Han Song
Inspired by the example of Holden Caulfield, the stalwarts of a North Korea that is one or two Jonbar hinges away from our timeline liberate the world. Their efforts to exalt the novel’s author hit an unexpected stumbling block.
There seems to be a bit of a gap between the glowing terms in which the North Koreans are described and what they actually do.…
“Under a Dangling Sky” • short fiction by Cheng Jingbo
A cunning dolphin seeks escape from their snow globe world.
Reminiscent of a particular David Brin. No surprise since it was inspired by that very Brin.
What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear • (2015) • novella by Bao Shu
The lamentable tale of a doomed love affair, told in the context of historical events that are both familiar and strange at the same time.
This reminded me of several stories in which history unwinds in the opposite direction, but do you think I can remember the title of even one of them? Correct the reviewer in comments!
“The New Year Train” • short fiction by Hao Jingfang
Uninformed journalists panic over a previously unacknowledged but ultimately harmless feature in an innovative train design.
This is a more upbeat cousin to “A Subway Named Mobius.”
The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales • (2017) • novelette by Fei Dao
A robot is dispatched to learn the art of confabulation, a quest that will take it across time and space.
The Snow of Jinyang • (2016) • novella by Zhang Ran
In most realities, Jinyang falls to the Song and is burned to the ground. One ambitious traveller is determined to preserve the city, at least for a time, but his reason is entirely self-serving.
This is could be a wryer take on de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall…
“The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge” • short story by Anna Wu
What would you trade for artistic genius?
“The First Emperor’s Games” • short fiction by Ma Boyong
What computer games are worthy of the man who unified all China?
Chinese SF authors seem to find anachronisms hilarious.
“Reflection” • short fiction by Gu Shi
The curious case of a clairvoyant and their odd relationship with the narrator.
“The Brain Box” • short fiction by Regina Kanyu Wang
A woman afraid that her innermost thoughts will be shared after her death kills herself. What follows is not what she imagined but it is still extremely disheartening.
Coming of the Light • (2015) • novelette by Chen Qiufan
His marketing plan having gone horribly right is merely the first step on an executive’s path to a dreadful enlightenment.
It’s probably no coincidence that this is playing on the same playground as a certain Arthur C. Clarke short story, since Clarke is referenced in passing.
“A History of Future Illnesses” • (2018) • short fiction by Chen Qiufan
The future offers a bewildering wealth of ingenious technological novelties, each of which comes with horrific drawbacks that are discovered far too late.
This is a good universe in which to be a particularly doctrinaire Old Order Mennonite.
A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction and Fandom • essay by Regina Kanyu Wang
A New Continent for China Scholars: Chinese Science Fiction Studies • essay by Mingwei Song
Science Fiction: Embarrassing No More • essay by Fei Dao
The advantage of the approach Liu took to this follow-up to Invisible Planets is the greater variety. The disadvantage is fewer pieces by Xia Jia1.
The SF in this anthology fits nicely into the mainstream of Western SF (albeit often into the mainstream as it existed a couple of decades ago ). For me the standouts are Xia Jia, and Tang Fei. But, I hasten to add, there’s nothing in this collection that was a bitter disappointment.
Quite often in reading translated SF, the translator stands as a barrier between author and reader; whatever appeals to audiences in the author’s homeland emerges from translation as wooden, lifeless prose, leaving readers to reconstruct what the original must have been like before translation. In this case, Liu’s translations are seamless, the result as engaging as the originals must be. Other publishers putting out translated works should take note.
1: Good thing I contributed to that Kickstarter, huh?
2: A step up for Cixin Lui, whose Western debut a few year ago would have been more at home with the star-smashing pulps of the 1940s.