Invisible Planets is superb anthology of short fiction that offers Westerners in particular a series of totally unique entry points and perspectives. There is plenty of impressive science fiction and fantasy but so many other genres are also touched upon that readers are bound to be swept away and will assuredly find a new author to follow.
STORIES BY CHEN QUIFAN
“The Year of the Rat”
Teenagers are lured into joining a government run fighting unit that traps and kills rats with the promise of guaranteed jobs upon completion of quotas. Kids must join due to poor grades and there is an assumption that they have thus far wasted their lives hiding away inside and playing away video games. The reluctant innocent and the madman who kills with joyful abandon flank our more neutral protagonist and when the rats begin to evolve further defences we see which side he ends up on.
We seem to be living in an environment where other domesticated animals are not in use and these rodents, bred to replace them, have escaped, evolved and started breeding beyond their pre-programmed limits. The story abounds with eerie and unsettling subtext like the newsletter that publishes lists of graduating rat catchers and the jobs they have received yet no one ever seems to recognise a familiar name. Think Screamers meets Jurassic Park.
“The Fish of Lijang”
An overworked businessman being groomed for the top is sent to a rehab facility after weeks of insomnia and stress related illness. What unfolds explores the working culture of China, the psychological need for illusions to be maintained, the shocking lengths governments might go to squeeze an extra working hour out of a man’s day and more.
“The Flower of Shazui”
It’s tough to describe this one but it’s very poetic and contains elements of love, obsession and betrayal. It follows a man whose guilt over his previous actions align with his need for a high class prostitute who is bearing the child of her pimp.
STORIES BY XIA JIA
“A Hundred Ghost Parade Tonight”
Ning is raised on Ghost Street, an old amusement attraction that mimics a long narrow street with stalls on either side. It has fallen into disrepair and no longer attracts tourists but Ning lives with lifelike robots that have had the souls of the dead fused into them so he has love and company. To say more would be to reveal too much……Giant mechanical spiders!
This story is told through the eyes of Tongtong, a young girl whose 80-year-old Grandpa is forced to move in with her and her parents so that he can be cared for. He is distant after losing wife and his job as a physician and resentful that his physical body can no longer keep up with his brain. Unable to make new connections he is offered the chance to use a new robot carer that is operated by a technician offsite. Given a chance to show his ingenuity, his ideas and forced evolution of the new technology broadens the scope of its use into areas its makers never imagined. Without a doubt one of the most beautiful stories of the collection.
“Night Journey of the Dragon Horse”
Another languid and wondrous tale from Jia follows an ancient metal dragon horse as it awakens from an extended slumber to find itself alone and no longer in use. Taking to the streets it finds something to share stories with and looks to make the journey to the next place.
STORIES BY MA BOYONG
“The City of Silence”
When discussing their society a character remarks, “The author of 1984 predicted the progress of totalitarianism, but could not predict the progress of technology”. This is a world where the Internet is restricted to a few book marked websites, where an address bar is not even part of the operating system, and where a list of ‘healthy words’ that can be used on line is whittled down daily to supposedly reduce stress on the populace. The progress of technology allows the government to not only monitor every key stroke and every utterance online but also the way we speak to people in public and what we can and cannot say. When our protagonists daily grind is interrupted by a man who starts cursing in a way unheard of for over five years, his world cracks open a little and he begins to look for signs there might be something more.
STORIES BY HAO JINGFANG
An older figure tells a younger figure about some of the thousands of planets they have encountered as a traveller. This is a chance for Jingfang to show off his imagination as he creates a string of unique planets with their own social structures, cultures, sense of time and inhabitants that are very well fleshed out despite using little in the way of space. Are they real or are they just stories. Does it matter?
This was an intense little story. Imagine a population so dense that you were allotted one of three chunks of time during the day/night to live your life. The rest of the time, you and the rest of your populace were chemically cocooned and your building folded itself up and went underground. Think Dark City meets Inception.
One man’s life is dedicated to getting enough money for his daughter to go to a reputable kindergarten where she can have singing and dancing lessons. The only way to make the money in time is to carry an illegal message between the three spaces and hope he can make it without being caught.
STORIES BY TANG PEI
A call girl of a different sort who offers an out of this world experience gives us a glimpse into her personal and professional life. Best I can do.
STORIES BY CHENG JINGBO
“Grave of the Fireflies”
This is the first real fairy tale of the anthology and very fantastical in nature. A young girl is born on a pilgrimage between worlds and upon arrival her mother enters a magician’s castle and is not seen again. Growing up the young girl encounters the magician herself, learns the secret of his eternal youth and the mystery of her mother’s ancients and secret past.
STORIES BY LIU CIXEN
They have certainly saved one of the best for last and surprisingly enough it is all based on mathematics. This story takes place a Chinese civilisation during the era of the samurai when an assassin is sent to kill a king but instead offers him the secret to eternal life. With the secret laying in the never ending and never repeating digits of Pi, the mathematician devises a system of calculating based on ones and zeros and men holding flags. His idea is that using three million soldiers he can build an enormous calculating formation and it is remarkably logical and captivating.
“Taking Care of God”
Wow wow wow. Cixen has a talent for thinking on a grand scale as shown in his previous story but this pushes things into a truly epic dimension. One day thousands of spaceships appear, completely surround the earth and start dropping old people down onto the surface. Each person says the same thing, “We are God. Please, considering that we created this world, would you give us a bit of food?”
From here we start examining how a civilisation could grow, mature, stagnate and then upon realising their impending death take steps to ensure they will be looked after in their final moments. How long does a civilisation take to grow? What level of technology would it require? How much time on earth could pass for someone travelling so close to light speed? Was Wall-E based on true events? Such a huge story to finish on and quite literally awe inspiring.
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Liu’s translation of these stories is beautiful and I believe he says it best.
Even within the limited selection of this anthology, you’ll encounter the science fiction realism of Chen Quifan, the “porridge SF” of Xia Jia, the overt, wry political metaphors of Ma Boyong, the surreal imagery and metaphor-driven logic of Tang Fei, the dense rich language-pictures painted by Cheng Jingbo, the fabulism and sociological speculation of Hao Jingfang and the grand, hard science fictional imagination of Liu Cixin.
It’s a feast. Enjoy it.
Read the full article at: fantasy-faction.com