Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)
It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.
Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.
While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.
Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.
I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.
So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.
Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.
This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.
The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.
But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,” and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.
So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.