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from the April 2019 issue

“Broken Stars,” a New Anthology Edited by Ken Liu, Casts a Fresh Look at Chinese Sci-Fi

Reviewed by Anjie Zheng

From sharp-edged social criticism to extravagant and alluring imagery, this collection of short-stories displays the wide range of the genre in contemporary China

When Ken Liu edited and translated his first anthology of Chinese science fiction, Invisible Planets, in 2016, it was the year after Liu Cixin had exploded onto the global scene as the first Chinese national to win the Hugo Award (for The Three Body Problem, which Liu also translated). Hordes of new Anglophone fans were minted overnight, Barack Obama among them. Naturally, they asked for more. 

Two and a half years later, Liu is finally answering those fans with a much-awaited new anthology. Longer, more diverse, and more challenging than its predecessor, Broken Stars showcases even more authors and themes than Liu’s first anthology. And it does not disappoint. Mixing fantasy, horror, and supernatural themes with hardcore sci-fi, as well as with Chinese wuxia (martial arts fantasy) and historical references, the stories present alternate realities that refract our own. They are imaginative and expansive, quiet and troubling, dramatic and marvelous, often at the same time. 

The wide mix of styles and lengths—from short one-scene episodes to long, epic sagas—is intentional. Inclusion was based on one metric only, as Liu states in his introduction: Liu had to enjoy them. “Whether you’ll like most of the stories in here will thus have a lot to do with how much your taste overlaps with mine,” he writes. For most readers, Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, two of the most-celebrated Chinese authors writing today, will probably be the most familiar names. Their stories here stand out as short, seemingly straightforward narratives about the unexpected implications of technological advancements and how these affect perennial human conflicts.

In Liu Cixin’s “Moonlight,” a scientist receives a phone call from his future self in a Shanghai that has been destroyed by flooding. He says only his present self can stop the disastrous effects of global warming, and gives him instructions on how to create machines that can combat climate change. But each new machine creates more unforeseen problems, and the present man feels the futility of his actions even as he harbors one burning and rather more personal question about his future self: will he ever find love? 

“The New Year Train,” by Hao, tells the story of a high-speed train that gets lost in the space-time continuum during Lunar New Year. On this holiday, millions of Chinese people travel from the cities where they labor to their hometowns, constituting the world’s largest migration. Hao, an economic researcher by day, writes pointedly about the human impacts of demographic growth. Her Hugo-winning short story, “Folding Beijing,” critically portrayed class dynamics in the city and the lengths to which have-nots would go to attain basic equity. The story here probes a more poignant question. The passengers on the vanished train, rather than being eager to arrive at their final destination, urge the conductor to take the longer, more scenic route instead. Asked why this happened, the train’s inventor replies: “. . . when the starting point and the destination are fixed—say, birth and death—why do most people rush toward the end?” 

One of sharpest writers on the absurdities of modern China is Chen Qiufan. Born in 1981, Qiufan draws from his professional experience in the marketing departments of technology companies to create incisive portrayals of the digital lives of the masses. The two stories he contributes, “Coming of the Light” and “A History of Future Illnesses,” tackle the terrifying consequences of a populace addicted to their smartphones.

Liu also includes lesser-known authors in his selection, such as Regina Wang and Anna Wu, who turned out to be two of my favorites. In Wang’s “The Brain Box” a grieving man dons a cranial contraption to experience the final thoughts of his beloved before her death. What he learns wrecks him. “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge,” by Wu, intersperses two narratives: a father-daughter duo that runs an eatery in space and a husband who trades it all to become a famous writer.  

Two of the longest stories in the book are set against true events in China’s history. (An understanding that these were highly dramatic, chaotic times is all the context the reader would need to appreciate these tales.) “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear,” by Baoshu, is a sweeping love story set between the 1960s and 2000s. The characters live their lives forward, getting older each year, but time around them moves backward, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics preceding the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The other story, “The Snow of Jinyang” by Zhang Ran, features a time traveler plopped into the Five Dynasties period in the tenth century.

Liu’s not wrong to anticipate variations in enjoyment based on readers’ tastes and experience with science fiction. For general readers who are not already dedicated fans of the genre, there are bound to be some duds in this mix of sixteen stories. I found some stories too long, too dense, with characters or plots too weird to be understandable. A tale in which North Korea conquers the United States and imprisons the writer J. D. Salinger, coyly suggesting that “The Catcher in the Rye” caused this “bifurcation in time” (How? Why?) fell flat for me, for example. I also couldn’t make sense of the story of a robot who, as if in a feverish fairytale, encounters Death, three shadowy men, a talking cat, and a mendacious king, among other seemingly random colorful details. 

The eponymous “Broken Stars” by Tang Fei is an opaque and unsettling story of a high-school girl who dreams of a woman who can read the future in a map of stars. Through these dreams, she discovers the terrifying truth about her mother, long believed dead. At the story’s most decisive moment, two minor characters commit necrophilia and cannibalism, perhaps signifying that the universe is now out-of-whack. But without further exploring their motivations, these monstrous acts shock without context, without providing a satisfying reason for doing so. 

While some stories had me scratching my head, Liu’s translation is clean and elegantly sparse throughout. Some stories are filled with alluring imagery. A dreamlike sky is a “crystalline welkin” where patches of color “expanded and percolated.” A restaurant in the universe looked like “a conch shell spinning silently in the void of space.” In other places, however, the crispness of the prose fails to convey depth of emotion. Protagonists “experienced a deep sorrow”; sights “were strange beyond description”; a lifelong love begins: “Qiqi was now my girlfriend.” This is likely due to the writing of the original stories. Science fiction is not often known for its lyrical character work. 

Here, as in Invisible Planets, a few essays about the genre make up an appendix. Those in Broken Stars are mainly written by academics, and their mere existence is testament to the genre’s evolution from niche to mainstream culture. A decade or so ago, there were few, if any, scholars who studied sci-fi. So what’s next? the final essay asks. As with all literary movements, it’s impossible to tell. 

Ken Liu, the most dedicated translator of Chinese science fiction into English, has been both a proponent and beneficiary of the growth of science fiction writing by Chinese authors. With this new anthology, we’ve been extended another invitation into a space he loves. He’s not the expert, he tells us, and doesn’t know what it will become in the future; he’s just as much of a fan as the rest of us, asking the same questions. But the stories he has compiled here are a celebration of stories themselves. They entertain, instruct, jar, alarm, and propel us to question our reality and the possibilities in it.  

Perhaps the robot in Fei Dao’s “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales” said it best: “I think tall tales give pleasure simply from the imagination’s leap into the infinite. It’s no different from humanity’s desire to fly. The pleasure alone is reason enough; no other explanation is needed.”

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