Invisible Planets is a collection of science fiction short stories by seven Chinese authors, along with three essays about the role of science fiction in a country that is often described as going through a rapid transition.
While reading the collection, it’s hard to shake the feeling that China itself is a character within its pages. Particularly in the West, we’re trained to view China as some sort of ineffable specter that’s taken on a life of its own, one whose shape and substance is glimpsed only through a distorted lens. The idea persists that the East is, as a general rule, old, mystical, unknowable. But this is exactly the set of assumptions that translator and editor Ken Liu warns against.
In the preface, “China Dreams,” he notes that it’s tempting to view Chinese science fiction as some kind of monolithic literary Other. However, he says, “Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach” (p. 13). In other words, the authors in Invisible Planets are only trying to tell their stories and experiences as they live them, and should not be taken as token cultural ambassadors.
At the same time, however, the stories live in a cultural context that cannot be ignored. Chen Qiufan describes science fiction as something particularly urgent and important in China at this moment. In his essay, “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition,” he writes: “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China, the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and extreme ugliness without resorting to science fiction” (p. 243).
Liu Cixin, perhaps the best known Chinese science fiction author in the U.S., details the history of the genre in China: first, as doggedly optimistic literature about future utopias; next, as educational material; then finally, looking West, assimilating more of the qualities of world science fiction. Liu writes: “The China of the present is a bit like America during science fiction’s Golden Age, when science and technology filled the future with wonder, presenting both great crises and grand opportunities” (p. 239). According to Xia Jia in her essay “What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?”: “Chinese writers had to imitate and reference the subjects and forms of Western science fiction while constructing a position for Chinese culture in a globalizing world, and from this position participate in the imagination of humanity’s shared future” (p. 247).
Taken all together, the stories in this anthology seem to occupy a fascinating space: telling tales through a perspective that is uniquely Chinese as well as through a Chinese interpretation of Western stories. They are both about China and not about China at all, and at times they echo stories we’ve read before, taking the shape of something that, though familiar, has an unusual sheen and acquired a new shine.
The collection is strewn with familiar landmarks and ideas in a landscape that is notably distinct. It falters occasionally with stories that are a touch too derivative; for instance, “The Flower of Shazui,” by Chen Qiufan, which contains a noir-ish element that isn’t wholly successful. The protagonist is a disgraced engineer who tried to make a quick buck stealing some blueprints; as an escaped fugitive, he falls in love with a prostitute and tries to help her escape an abusive relationship.
Even in “The Flower of Shazui,” though, there is evocative imagery that keeps the story fresh. Shazui is a squalid fishing village, incredibly small but incredibly vertical, so tightly packed with skyscrapers that it’s a luxury to be able to see the sky. The main character sells cheap knockoff biotech next to a traditional herbal medicine shop and rents from a landlady who performs shamanistic rituals with a mask outfitted with augmented reality lenses:
The wooden shaman mask glowers at me with its round eyeholes, orange light reflecting off the surface. The face is that of an angry goddess. Through the eyeholes I can see a strange glint in her eyes: sparkling blue flashes, very high in frequency. Suddenly, I understand. The mask is nothing more than a fucking well-made disguise for a pair of augmented reality glasses. (p. 56)
Some of the best imagery in the anthology, however, comes from Xia Jia, especially in her story “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight.” Ning is a small human boy who lives with robots that have been imbued with the souls of humans who used to be alive. Their home is Ghost Street, a hollowed-out tourist attraction that has been long abandoned. As the story progresses, Ning is stricken to learn that he is also a robot, a newer model that bleeds and feels hunger but has no memories of his own:
Every ghost is full of stories from when they were alive. Their bodies have been cremated and the ashes mixed into the earth, but their stories still live on. During the day, when all Ghost Street is asleep, the stories become dreams and circle under the shadows of the eaves like swallows without nests. During those hours, only I’m around, walking in the street, and only I can see them and hear their buzzing song. (p. 66)
Tang Fei’s “Call Girl” is also tinged with magic realism and poetic abstractions. In “Call Girl,” Xiaoyi is a schoolgirl who can somehow commune with the source code of the universe, which appears to her as stories that she sells to clients. When meeting with one such customer, she transports him to a metaphysical space where she summons stories in the shape of dogs:
"How did you do this?" the man asks, carefully cradling the puppy and watching it suck on his finger.
"With this." She shakes the pendant hanging from her neck.
"A dog whistle?"
"Only I can work it. When stories hear my call, they come, and then people take them away." (p. 179)
What some stories lack in lyricism, they recoup in inventive storytelling. “The Circle” by Liu Cixin is a tale of political intrigue in the late Qin dynasty during the 200s BC. As part of a plot to assassinate King Zheng and eradicate the Qin army, a clever double agent accidentally invents the first computer. Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” meanwhile, is a tale of literal class stratification, featuring a city that folds up and rotates so that eighty million people can experience the same plot of land. In “Taking Care of God,” also by Liu, humanity learns that we were actually created by an extraterrestrial God Civilization. In their twilight years, the Gods have now come to Earth, hoping that humans will have a sense of filial duty and take them in.
The stories in Invisible Planets are largely successful and often offer an interesting take on familiar ideas and motifs. This is partly because it’s impossible to divorce the authors’ stories from their unique histories as both writers and Chinese citizens; and it’s equally impossible to entirely eliminate our own biases while reading. However, as Liu writes, by attempting to set aside our expectations and preconceptions—or at the very least, picking them up from time to time and examining them closely—the experience of reading Invisible Planets can offer a rich glimpse of a worldview that is only slightly asymptotic to our own.
It’s appropriate that the titular story, “Invisible Planets” by Hao Jingfang, takes inspiration from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Hao’s narrator spins the fabulist tales of a dozen different planets, and when asked by her listener whether any of it is true, she replies: “We have been sitting here for an afternoon telling stories, and together, we possess a universe. But these stories are not something I tell you. This afternoon, you and I are both tellers and both listeners” (p. 143).