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Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation

By Ken Liu 

3 Dec, 2016



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Ken Liu’s 2016 anthology Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation is exactly what it says on the tin: an anthology of contemporary Chinese SF in translation. 

Introduction: China Dreams

Science fiction has been booming in China. Since most North American Anglophones cannot read Chinese, this is a world with which most North American readers will be unfamiliar. While it is beyond the ability of any single person to convey the entirety of an entire nation’s science fiction, Liu hopes this work will help to bridge the gap. 

Liu has opted to organize this collection by author; I will follow his lead. Names in bold are the authors’ names.

Chen Qiufan

Chen Qiufan is a screenwriter and columnist who also writes SF. 

The Year of the Rat

The reward for mediocre marks is an exciting tour with the Rodent Control Force, formed to exterminate genetically engineered Neorats. As the unfortunate protagonist finds out, the Neorats are not just bipedal and immune to poison; they have other abilities even more daunting. He then discovers that both he and the Neorats are merely pawns in the trade war between China and the Western Alliance. Expendable pawns. 


I am not being coy about the name of the protagonist. The story is told in first person and so far as I can tell, nobody ever deigns to address him by name. 

The Fish of Jillian

An office worker on the verge of a breakdown is sent to Lijiang for much-needed rehabilitation. Lijiang has changed since he was last there; soon he will be transformed in his turn. 


I know I have previously encountered this story before … perhaps in a Clarkesworld podcast. Chen gives it skillful treatment. Be warned that this is not a comfort read. 

The Flower of Shazui

A con-man on the run decides to use his skills in service of a desperate, abused prostitute. 


Remember not a comfort read”? This does not break the pattern. 

Xia Jia

Xia Jia is a teacher and a writer. 

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight

Abandoned as a baby, Ning was raised by robots in a decaying theme park. Although he appears to be a human boy, he suspects he may be even less human than the robots. They have been given human souls; he suspects that he does not possess one. But whatever his deficits, he is uniquely qualified to protect his adopted family from unwanted change. 


Xia calls her style of science fiction porridge science fiction” because it partakes of both hard and soft SF (robots, but also souls that can be transferred from living beings to machines). I like the term and plan to apply it shamelessly. 

Tongtong’s Summer

Laid low by injury, Tongtong’s grandfather is just one of a vast army of retirees who must depend on government. The grandfather is given a remote-control caregiver robot. The old man is quick to see possibilities that the robot’s designers overlooked. But time is not his ally… 


How curious to see an SFnal society whose response to the growing ranks of the elderly is not to find ways to bilk them of their savings, pensions, and homes, nor to find some economical way to convert them to a nutritious slurry. 

Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse

The last relic of an age of great robots wakes into a world much transformed, one where companionship is a treasure that must be sought. It is not given freely. 


I don’t have something in my eye. You have something in your eye. 

Ma Boyong

Ma Boyong writes fiction and non-fiction and is active in writing communities on- and off-line. 

The City of Silence

A completely wired world allows a benevolent state to provide its citizens with the panopticon nanny state they would want if they knew what was best for them. A few may find ways to resist …but technology is always advancing. 


Authors wanting to know how to properly reference classics without borrowing from them wholesale should note how Ma handles his references to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Hao Jingfang

Hao Jingfang writes both fiction and non-fiction. 

Invisible Planets

Parables about alien worlds of dubious reality illuminate our own world. 

Folding Beijing

Desperate to earn money for his adopted daughter’s education, waste-worker Lao Dao agrees to act as an illegal courier for a love-smitten friend. The foray that follows reveals the darker secrets of his segregated city. 


I am a bit boggled at the idea of having to pay tuition for kindergarten. The setup itself reminds me a little of Philip Jose Farmer, and somewhat of the more doleful prognostications of Norbert Wiener. Beware the Robopocalypse! The driving force in this story is Lao Dao’s love for his child; how irritating that familial piety should be so uncommon in science fiction that it is worthy of note. 

Tang Fei

Tang Fei is a genre-blending spec-fic writer and critic. 

Call Girl

Her schoolmates can only speculate about what unconventional services Xiaoyi might offer her clients. Her services must be unusual indeed to attract so many. 


Note that I said unconventional” and not unsavoury.”

Cheng Jingbo

Cheng Jingbo is a spec-fic writer. 

Grave of the Fireflies

Love can move worlds. It can kill a thousand stars. 

Liu Cixin

Promixa Centauri does not work that way! Liu Cixin is arguably the best known Chinese hard SF writer. Certainly he is in the West. 

The Circle

King Zheng’s life was in Jing Ke’s hands. Rather than murder his king’s enemy, Jing Ke offers his unique services to Zheng. The result will transform China. 


I hope Chinese has a phrase analogous to English’s l’esprit d’escalier.

Taking Care of God

Humans could have lashed out at their creators, now ancient and helpless. Instead, they do something far worse. 


Liu may be China’s paramount hard SF writer but his material feels… archaic to me. He writes stories that could have been published in any magazine of the 1940s. Well, not Astounding because as far as I know Campbell never published anyone who was Asian (or black). 


The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three-Body and Chinese Science Fiction (Liu Cixin)

A short discussion of Chinese SF, from a perspective very nearly as essentially pessimistic as that of mid-1970s Poul Anderson. 

The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition (Chen Qiufan)

Science fiction exists in a context: China’s is shaped by the transformations washing across that ancient nation. 

What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese? (by Xia Jia):

A century of Chinese science fiction seen through a historian’s eye. 

General comments

Thanks to certain statistical obsessions of mine, I noticed that (if this anthology is any guide) Chinese SF is nowhere near as gender-segregated as American and Japanese SF. I promised some years ago not to review modern (post-1985) anthologies if the percentage of women in the table of contents is less than 40%; I only remembered that about half-way through this work. Imagine my relief when it turned out men and women are represented here in equal numbers. Dumb luck for the win! 

I remain immune to the charms of Liu Cixin’s fiction. That acknowledged, I came away from this with more author names to guide my book-buying. 

Invisible Planets is available here.