Until recently, American readers had little access to – or much interest in – science fiction published in China. Thanks in part to the efforts of Boston-area author, attorney and translator Ken Liu, however, that state of affairs has begun to change.

“Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary SF in Translation” collects 13 stories by Chinese authors, work that has been critically acclaimed, won awards here and in China, or just particularly appeals to Liu’s artistic sensibilities. The volume also includes three critical essays by other writers that assess the history of and current trends in Chinese science fiction.

This year has been especially notable for Liu. Last March, Saga Press published “The Paper Menagerie,” a collection culled from his more than 100 published stories. In October, Saga released “The Wall of Storms,” the second volume in an epic “silkpunk” fantasy series, and in November Tor published his translation of “Death’s End,” the conclusion of the Three-Body trilogy by Liu Cixin (no relation).

In his introduction, Liu states that he doesn’t consider himself an expert on Chinese science fiction. He warns his readers, “If one’s knowledge of China is limited to Western media reports or the experience of being a tourist or expat, claiming to ‘understand’ China is akin to a man who has caught a glimpse of a fuzzy spot through a drinking straw claiming to know what a leopard is.”

“Invisible Planets” opens strongly, with three stories by screenwriter, fiction writer and columnist Chen Qiufan (a.k.a. Stanley Chan), renowned for his first novel, “The Waste Tide.”

Ken Liu

Ken Liu

In “The Year of the Rat,” unemployed and demoralized college grads find themselves in a deadly war against genetically engineered, bipedal rodents.

“The Fish of Lijiang” chronicles an office drone’s trip to the title city, where he undergoes rehabilitation for “Psychogenic Neural-Functional Disorder II” and meets a mysterious nurse familiar with “time sense dilation therapy.”

“The Flower of Shazui” spotlights an industrial spy living in exile, who seeks redemption for a co-conspirator’s death by trying to save a local prostitute from her cruel husband and pimp. Each story is set in a unique fictional universe, but all speak eloquently to the “absurd reality of contemporary China,” as Chen puts it in his accompanying essay.

Xia Jia, the first Ph.D.-holder in China with a specialization in science fiction, also contributes an eclectic trio of tales.

“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” references, among other sources, the fiction of Neil Gaiman and the films of Hayao Miyazaki as it depicts a fantastic gathering of spirits, ghosts and monsters being violently pushed out of their homes.

Xia refers to her style as “porridge SF,” and these stories demonstrate how diverse ingredients of science fiction and fantasy can be blended successfully. When a robot assistant is brought into her home to help care for her elderly grandfather, the young protagonist of “Tongtong’s Summer” finds an unexpected wellspring of empathy and connection.

Original to this volume, “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” depicts the awakening of a majestic artificial intelligence and its quest for self-knowledge in a possibly post-apocalyptic world.

One of the highlights of “Invisible Planets” is Hao Jingfang’s dystopian “Folding Beijing,” which won a Hugo Award last year for best novelette (beating out nominated work by Stephen King). It takes place in a city where the earth flips to allow different classes of residents to use the urban environment and enjoy sunlight at prescribed intervals. Traveling between levels is forbidden, but a father makes the perilous journey to earn enough to send his daughter to a good school.

Hao also provides the title story for this volume, an Italo Calvino-influenced tour of 11 planets, scattered across the universe but speaking to humanity’s need for connection amid vast separation.

1130517_712611 Invisible_Planets_co.jpgMa Boyong pays overt homage to George Orwell and “1984” in “The City of Silence.” Depressed computer programmer Arvardan catches a glimpse of life beyond the awful daily grind, even as he wrestles with communicating via a List of Healthy Words. This chilling tale could be taken solely as a satire on the Chinese state, but its themes of linguistic oppression extend far beyond the borders of that nation.

Perhaps the most famous of all current Chinese science fiction writers, Liu Cixin provides the final two stories in the book. “The Circle,” adapted from a chapter in the Three-Body trilogy, offers a clever look at how to use a vast army of soldiers to calculate the value of pi.

“Taking Care of God” recounts the upheaval that ensues after 2 billion elderly manifestations of the deity descend to Earth and request continuing care in return for having seeded the planet with life eons ago.

The stories address the mysteries of math and science, without losing sight of the mundane needs of humanity.

In the collection’s final essay, Xia Jia directly poses the question “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?”

There is no simple answer, of course, just as there is no easy way to pinpoint which books best represent the whole body of science fiction published in the United States.

Xia writes, “The simultaneous presence of crisis and prosperity (in China) guarantees a range of attitudes toward humanity’s future among the writers: some are pessimistic, believing that we’re powerless against irresistible trends; some are hopeful that human ingenuity will ultimately triumph; still others resort to ironic observation on the absurdity of life.”

“Invisible Planets” doesn’t attempt to define Chinese science fiction, to pin it down with facile generalities. Rather, Liu and his collaborators provide just enough context to make the experience enjoyable for a general audience. Most readers will greet this expanded universe of high-quality fiction with gratitude, wonder and an urge to track down further examples.

“Invisible Planets” is an essential volume for any serious library of the genre, as well as a welcome choice for casual reading.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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