Sinopticon is a collection of SF short stories written by Chinese authors, all translated by the anthology’s editor, Xueting Christine Ni. Aside from their place of origin and genre, the thirteen stories here don’t have any unifying theme: they range in tone from comedic to bittersweet, with settings both on near-future Earth and eons out on the edge of the Milky Way. Ni does a good job (as far as this Anglo reader can tell) of preserving the tone and style of each author, and extols their talents (or in some cases, defends their foibles) in an afterword that follows each story. In these notes of Ni’s, she writes up biographies for each author that help place each in the context of science fiction literature in China, as well as talking about themes and references that might not be apparent to Western readers. It’s a nice little peek into the history and current state of Chinese genre fiction.
In her notes, Ni also often defends the fact that the writers in this collection are deploying tropes that might seem old hat to those who grew up with English-language SF. For example, there is one story in Sinopticon that reminded me greatly of Duncan Jones’s 2009 film Moon. But so what? I enjoyed both Moon and the story in question. It’s not so much about whether an idea is clichéd, but how the trope is used and to what effect. And, while there might be stories here featuring familiar motifs, there are also stories that touch on themes you wouldn’t usually see in an anthology full of Western writers.
Two stories touch on Chinese-Japanese relations, for instance. Of the two, “Rendezvous: 1937” by Zhao Haihong, is more overt about its topic. In it, a Chinese woman named Xia uses alien tech to time travel to Nanjing, December 1937, in order to collect evidence of Japanese war crimes. The story doesn’t shy away from depicting mass slaughter, but neither its message nor tone ever becomes too despairing. This is in part thanks to the author occasionally breaking the fourth wall to comment on the futility of trying to craft a story from such a horrific event; it’s also thanks to the ending, which is hopeful for a better future despite the horrors of the past.
“Meisje Met de Parel” by Anna Wu, meanwhile, is also about China and Japan, if obliquely. The first hint of the story’s subtext comes from the main character’s name: Zhang Shizuko is a young teenage painter living in modern-day China. Her father is also an artist, and once painted a portrait of a beautiful woman with a pearl earring. When Shizuko’s mother rips the painting apart in a fit of jealousy, Shizuko goes to a friend for help restoring it. While doing so, they discover something that defies known science, and Shizuko starts to remember a near-death experience from her childhood. “Meisje Met De Parel” is a hard story to sum up, but it’s one of my favorites in this volume. The way Wu describes both food and art so lovingly feels like something from a Ghibli movie, and Shizuko’s home life is detailed enough that you really feel like you know her. The way in which the mundane is depicted and treasured makes the ending hit all the harder when it jumps ahead to a sterile, far-flung future. The story ends, however, on a note yearning for peace, with a character quoting a poem by Lu Xun, “On Sanyi Tower,” a poem “about the friendship and longing for peace between Chinese and Japanese people, despite the atrocities committed by the latter’s imperial government” (p. 207). The inclusion of this poem excerpt, originally written in 1933, recasts the conflict in the story as not between modern humans and future invaders, but as between humans here on Earth right now.
Earlier I said that the stories in this collection vary greatly, but another story, “The Heart of the Museum” by Tang Fei, has a very similar premise to “Meisje Met De Parel” and a lot of the same themes, but without the depth of feeling, or the joy of discovery that comes from the slowly unfolding “Meisje.” Both stories feature a time-travelling alien who goes into the past in order to interact with a human artist/creator with whom they feel a connection. While the plots both revolve on the same hinge, the way the stories are told are vastly different. In “The Heart of the Museum,” the narrator works as a young boy’s art tutor/bodyguard, but has their own agenda: they are an alien who doesn’t perceive time linearly and has come to Earth to protect the boy and preserve his timeline. The main character is a big fan of a museum the boy will build one day, a museum that will outlive most of the human race, and wants to make sure everything unfolds as it should. In Ni’s notes at the end she talks about how, in the original Chinese, “The Heart of the Museum” really played around with tenses and temporal displacement, and I think that, unfortunately, this just did not come across in the English version.
Even if I didn’t think its conceit worked, though, “The Heart of the Museum” is not my least favorite story in this collection. That would have to be “The Absolution Experiment” by Bao Shu. I also really disliked Bao Shu’s The Redemption of Time (2011), the author-sanctioned continuation of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. I thought it exhibited some of the worse clichés of, well, fan fiction—and also undercut one of the more powerful emotional moments in Death’s End. At least with “The Absolution Experiment,” he’s not mangling a modern classic, but many of the problems I find in his writing persist. In the story, Braywalk is a war criminal who has been sentenced to life in prison. He is offered a chance to take part in a series of scientific experiments; if successful, he will get not only his freedom but also immortality. Anyone who’s seen an episode of The Twilight Zone can guess where the story is going, but even an obvious twist could be saved if the delivery is solid. That’s not the case here. Paper-thin characters just exposit at each other, sometimes even prefacing their info-dumps with “As you know …”
But all of this is just a blip in an otherwise strong collection: there’s a comedic zombie story, “Flower of the Other Shore” by A Que, that has the rollicking, rambling energy of a Saturday morning cartoon or old movie serial; “The Great Migration” by Ma Boyong is a thoughtful futuristic take on the migration that happens in China every Lunar New Year; “The Tide of Moon City” by Regina Kanyu Wang is a well-done human drama that also works as a space-age spy story. Nearly every story here has something unique to offer—and I enjoyed myself nearly the whole time I was reading Sinopticon, both because of the strength of the stories themselves and thanks to Ni’s notes and curation. Not all of the stories have a happy ending, but throughout there’s a general feeling of goodwill that comes through. If you love SF, or want to read more Chinese SF authors, you owe it to yourself to check out Sinopticon.