Ken Liu, ed. & trans.
480 Pages; Cloth, $25.19
Only a few years removed from publishing the widely acclaimed Chinese science fiction anthology Invisible Planets (2016), editor Ken Liu returns to the forefront of the genre with another masterfully translated anthology in Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. Collecting sixteen short stories from fourteen current Chinese writers into a single volume—including works by 2015 Hugo Award winner Cixin Liu (The Three-Body Problem ) and 2016 winner Hao Jingfang (Folding Beijing )—the writers of Broken Stars utilize the genre to its utmost and provide anglophone readers with a diverse sampling of Chinese science fiction that instills both a sense of familiarity and a longing for the unknown. While the included stories generally operate under the auspices of the sci-fi genre, many of the authors bridge the divide between the realms of science fiction and those of fantasy, magical realism, horror, speculation, revision, and romance. The result of this genre diffusion are tales both rich in Chinese history and culture while also exploring universal topics that examine both the existential and metaphysical questions of life in contemporary society.
In contrast to 2016's Invisible Planets, which served to highlight popular authors and is a wonderful introduction to contemporary Chinese science fiction for English readers, Liu has opted with Broken Stars to provide a more eclectic mix of both known quantities and newcomers. In addition to the aforementioned Cixin and Hao, Broken Stars reunites returning readers with other Invisible Planets contributors such as Xia Jia ("Goodbye, Melancholy") and Tang Fei ("Broken Stars"), while also giving the West its first formal introduction to the likes of Zhang Ran ("The Snow of Jinyang") and Fei Dao/Jia Liyuan ("The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales"). Liu's blending of veterans and rising stars in the anthology allows readers to compare and contrast each author's divergent approaches to how the sci-fi genre can be utilized as a storytelling application. While writers such as Cixin employ a more classic science fiction approach to explore topics of broad contemporary relevance such as war or the environment—something that fans of J. G. Ballard and Cormac McCarthy will undoubtably appreciate—authors such as Liyuan prefer to break down boundaries between various genres to investigate and highlight the role of the individual self in modern society. Like any collected work, much of the pleasure is derived from witnessing these various methods in action, and how each author builds their storyworlds and characters. Perhaps the story takes place in the near future. Maybe it's set during the period of the Five Dynasties. Perhaps space and time have no meaning at all. The lingering uncertainly with each section as to how the next author with circumvent a reader's expectations makes each page-turn an exciting exercise in anticipation.
While the book is filled from cover to cover with engaging stories and poignant perspectives on both current and timeless topics relating to the human experience, two particular authors stand out in this reviewer's opinion: Tang Fei's "Broken Stars," from which the anthology gets its title, and "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" by Baoshu/Li Jun. "Broken Stars" opts for a story that straddles the lines between thriller, supernatural, magical realism, and science fiction, expertly creating states of anxiety through the use of genre diffusement and methodical pacing. Tang constructs her narrative in such a way that readers may feel trapped in a literary state of derealization, mirroring that of the story's protagonist as the borders between reality and dreams become ever more clouded with each passing paragraph. The deliberate misdirection and distortions of verisimilitude by Tang's unreliable narrator will likely render a reader breathless as they approach the climax, leaving them to ponder the broader societal meaning behind the story long after it is finished.
For "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear," perhaps the best story in the anthology, Baoshu inverts the notions of linear time...