To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.
For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).
This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.
To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.
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.
Hello, my dear readers (and new readers!).
Sadly, last month, I was not able to finish the A-to-Z Blogging Challenge. I kept going, and managed to get some posts up for the last few letters except for Z, but ultimately, life got in the way. I wanted to end the challenge with a bang, and write a post called “Zero-Point Energy Generators and Other Internet Malarkey,” but a person I am very fond of visited me and my priorities changed.
The challenge was very fun, though, and it was a challenge to keep thinking of new ideas to write. I’m not really the kind of person that can keep writing a daily blog like that without succumbing to some kind of fatigue or dissatisfaction at the quality of the writing. Indeed, the hardest part of the challenge was, for me, hitting the publish button on a post that I put together in haste to get one out for the day.
I will still, at some point, be writing that post about zero-point energy generators. I also have plans to add a new page for book reviews that I want to start writing. Most of them will be for books that I find for Kindle on amazon.com by independent authors. I have recently discovered that world and, honestly, I am rather impressed by it. Some of the writing is not very good, but the stories usually make up for that. But I’ll write more about that later.
My fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics, has languished since March. Part of the reason is because April was a busy month, and the A-to-Z Challenge took priority. A large part of the reason is because I have been trying to run a campaign for State Representative. I have written previously about a survey I got from Americans for Prosperity, and since then, I have done much more work and have taken other surveys. As the summer really gets started I will be busy campaigning and learning more about this process. I have to be honest that it’s been very eye-opening. There are more groups working to lobby elected officials than I had realized, and each of them wields a great deal of power. It’s frankly rather worrisome, and I’m concerned about the state of our democracy.
In the interest of keeping things separated and organized, I have started another blog for my campaign, in which I have reblogged the post about the AFP survey with a small update. It’s pretty simple, and it’s called “Josh Derke for State Representative.” It’s a work in progress (and I haven’t had much time to work on it yet) so it doesn’t have a lot of content.
I’ve also got a Facebook page for my campaign (which is also a work in progress) that can be found here.
Anyway, the most interesting bit of news was that I attended the Motor City Comic Con. And, honestly, it was great! I got to meet William Shatner, who was a kind, warm person. I don’t know why, but I didn’t expect that. His panel was really neat as well, and he had some pretty great stories. He did kind of butcher science when he talked about the fact that we don’t really know anything about the universe, but his central point was, I would think, dead on: that we don’t really know what’s out there and we’re driven to discover.
So let’s get out there! (Preferably on the Enterprise.)
Shatner talked about a bit of the wisdom he’s learned about why cons are so popular: these stories we celebrate, from Doctor Who to Star Trek to Lord of the Rings (and all of the other shows that are too numerous to name) are our modern myths. I think that’s a very important observation.
We get together to explore our common ethos, and share our common myths. We revel in the stories and the heroes. The Doctor is a modern Odysseus on his own odyssey, as is James T. Kirk. And there’s something in this that speaks to something that all of humanity has in common: our use of stories to tell us about ourselves. So, at comic con, we get together to share these stories which we love with other people who love them. We meet the actors who are the heroes. We get their signatures and we take pictures with them because we make them part of us–part of our own stories. And, in this way, we become a part of the modern epics we celebrate.
John Barrowman was also a hoot, and his guest panel was hilarious. But you don’t have to take my word for it:
The thing I like about John Barrowman is that he doesn’t just shoo you through a line. He takes the time. He talks to you. He shook my hand (and I might have swooned a bit). He’s the kind of person that actually, genuinely cares about his fans and I find that so refreshing.
One of the things I really like about going to comic con is that I just love to see all of the passion of the people who attend. It’s great to talk to people, laugh with them, recount our favorite moments in Star Trek and Doctor Who. There were many cool costumes (and I took some pictures, but not nearly enough because I’m bad at that kind of thing) and a lot of cool displays.
And, finally, what kind of Con would it be without the 501st Legion?
Anyway, that’s it for tonight. I hope that I will be updating this blog more regularly again, but it’s summer and I have a million things to do. Plus, you know, summer. It’s actually nice and not cold outside. I keep hoping that my allergies won’t be bad this year and I can actually enjoy the outdoors, but maybe that’s a fool’s hope.
Thanks for stopping by!
I love books.
From the time I first picked up a battered copy of The Hobbit to the time when I discovered a deep affinity for science fiction when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, books have been the center of gravity that my life has orbited around. I spent five years studying English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan for that very reason, learning how to grapple with the difficult ideas that literature often forces you to face.
Books are more than just literature, though. They’re more than just allusion and framing and metaphor. They’re human, and because of that, they represent us. Our hopes and aspirations. Our fears and malevolence. Sometimes it is easy to forget that books are more than just bound pages with ink. They’re the voices of people echoing through time. Who was the first person to tell the epic of Beowulf? How many times did the words “Hwaet! we Gar-Dina…” pass between the lips of a poet, strumming an Anglo-Saxon lyre, while people huddled around a fire, captivated by the stories of a Geat who defeated a horrible monster and later became king of the Geats?
We’ll never know, but these questions have always inspired me. I learned how to read Old English and that act, inspired by images of a tradition of poet-actors who passed the story down orally, opened me to more worlds of thought than I could ever have imagined. Kennings, which are particular to Old English, helped me to see how flexible language can be. Why adhere to a rigid understanding of words and definitions when our language was so adept at using words like heofon-candel, or sky candle, to mean sun?
There aren’t many ways to see just how powerful Old English is when spoken anymore. I was lucky enough to come across two videos by Benjamin Bagby, the opening lines of Beowulf and the battle scene with Grendel, which do a magnificent job of showing how the epic poem might have been performed.
Books are also physical. Holding a copy of an old book and feeling its weight is, to a bibliophile, an affirmation of life. The smell of the fragile, often yellow pages invokes a sense of wonder. We want to collect the books we love. I tend to collect different editions and printings of the same book if I can find them. Some time ago I started to catalog my books so that I could keep track of the different editions.
One of the things that’s absolutely wonderful about cataloging books is that not only does it allow me to show off a huge stack of slips that detail the books, but it also allows me to feel and hold each one. I have to open the book to get the information to put on the slip for the catalog, so even if I never get around to reading it (I do have a life outside of books and I do enjoy living it) I can take the time to appreciate it. The picture above and to the right is from a copy of David Starr, Space Ranger that I had recently purchased. Little things like these old order forms make me smile.
One of the drawbacks with book collecting is space. I have personally cursed the laws of physics more than once over the years as bookshelves were filled to capacity and storage containers to bursting with books. So now they exist wherever I can find room for them: under the bed, in multiple closets, and in various rooms.
Despite the lack of space for the books, I don’t ever imagine I’ll stop collecting them. Every time I go to a bookstore I have to stop myself from grabbing up stacks of books (lest I drive myself into bankruptcy) and carting them to the counter. Collecting books isn’t just a hobby or a passion, though. In many ways it is like the accumulation of money; a kind of cultural and intellectual currency to expand the mind and enrich the soul. They allow you to connect and communicate with people that may be long dead, adding their ideas and perspectives to your own.
The search for books is the search for knowledge. Fiction can teach us about the perils and pitfalls that we must face by our nature as humans, just as nonfiction can guide our learning on history and science. We become more than what we were after we learn. We improve ourselves and we pass that on to those that come after us. And that’s the open secret we bibliophiles know. Books, like ideas and knowledge, are precious.
Nidhi is pursuing a PhD in English at The University of Western Ontario. Of her studies, she writes:
I am interested in the representations of rape and sexual violence in India from the Partition to the contemporary times, especially in lieu of the recent polemic cases that have taken place in India. Specifically, I want to address the themes of silence and honour and the ways in which these elements shape a middle class Indian woman’s subjectivity through a close analysis of novels, films, and online media.
Cultural Critic in the Making showcases her thoughts relating to her chosen field of study in a way that isn’t as impenetrable as esoteric fields can be. Of particular interest is a post entitled “Domestic Violence In India : Critical Analysis of A Forgotten Film – Ashok Gaikwad’s Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat (1997)“, which presents a Bollywood movie and analyzes with particular attention on domestic violence in India.
Nidhi first introduced me to Bollywood movies a few years ago with the movie “3 Idiots.” Anyone who appreciates Bollywood movies and the cultural and social commentaries that they can contain will probably appreciate her blog. I encourage anyone interested in current events in India, as well as ago-old issues of sex, race, gender, and otherness, to read Cultural Critic in the Making.
How is it that Americans celebrate a holiday that’s ostensibly about giving by buying and hoarding gaudy, ugly displays? It’s the same scene every year: all of the stored Christmas decorations are dragged out of the basement at great personal risk and then hours are spent trying to make them work correctly. A set of lights might not work because one is out, or the cords might be tangled. It’s a useless gesture to placate what essentially amounts to a kitschy expression of base consumerism dressed as either a religious festival or a celebration of togetherness.
It’s not hard to tell that I’ve been sour on Christmas for some time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a hypocrite when it comes to Christmas, and I fully recognize that. I do enjoy getting together with family and eating a bunch of food and exchanging store-bought presents. It has its charm. What I find intolerable is the trouble we go through to celebrate it.
Christmas decorations rarely ever look appealing and they contribute, in my family, to roughly 45% of all stress related to this season. I can tell you that, for people that complain about their energy bill all year, my grandparents are always ready to keep Christmas lights on all over the house for over a month straight for many hours. I’ve always found this bemusing.
You can imagine that when I read, from Think Progress, that homelessness in the United States could be ended with the amount of money that American spend on Christmas decorations every year, I get a bit frustrated. Frustrated because decorations of the sort that people throw in their houses or in their front yards are frivolities that don’t have any reasonable connection to the purpose of Christmas.
The data that Think Progress gives also shows that eliminating the capital gains tax cuts could also solve the problem. I think that this shows a terrible order of priorities on the part of Americans. I’d be interested to see what progress we might accomplish with homelessness if we took the money that would otherwise be spent on Christmas decorations and used it to fund programs to end homelessness.
Doesn’t that seem like it would be a much better use of the money? I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a holiday that is supposed to be, for most Americans, the birth of Jesus Christ.