Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation (2016) opens with editor Ken Liu’s discussion of the limiting nature of comparative categories such as ‘Chinese science fiction’ or ‘science fiction written in English.’ I believe it is important, in any review of this anthology, to reiterate his assertion that the collection offers readers only a ‘thin slice’ of the Chinese science fiction landscape. As such, while the collection is an introduction for Anglophone readers, it is by no means emblematic of Chinese science fiction altogether, and it would be ill-advised to read it as such. Indeed, Liu is very transparent in explaining that the stories he chose were prioritised also by their accessibility to an Anglophone audience.
What Invisible Planets offers us is thirteen fictional visions of our world(s), imagined by seven contemporary Chinese authors, differing in genre, style and tone, and ranging from deeply moving to structurally playful, from existentially inquisitive to unsettling versions of possible near futures.
Chen Qiufan’s opening stories, “The Year of the Rat” and “The Fish of Lijiang” weave together the eerie side of genetic experimentation with government conspiracies and the powerlessness of the average citizen. Ma Bayong’s brilliantly imagined “The City of Silence” pushes this to the extreme and imagines a 1984-esque totalitarian state controlling language itself. In “Folding Beijing,” Hao Jingfang’s literally folding city portions out time to divide its population. Urbanization, the structure of cities (and whole planets) and the sense of a place are vividly visualized in the whole collection: in Hao Jingfang’s “Invisible Planets,” in the walled city of Chen Qiufan’s “The Flower of Shazui” and his utopic rehabilitation centres in “The Fish of Lijiang,” in the constructions and destructions imagined in Xia Jia’s “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” and her post-apocalyptic “Night Journey of the Dragon Horse,” and in Cheng Hingbo’s sci-fi fairytale fusion, “Grave of the Fireflies” where places seem to be finite and infinite simultaneously.
Liu Cixin’s “The Circle” brings together historical fantasy and technology, a satirical cautionary tale where a king is bested by a keen strategist, much like old Akbar-Birbal tales. Social and filial duty is movingly explored in Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” and Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God,” the latter which also sketches out an entertaining human origin story along with a fascinating theory of the growth of a civilisation. Lastly, in Tang Fei’s subversive “Call Girl” and Hao JingFang’s “Invisible Planets,” we encounter a thought-provoking meditation on the nature of stories, storytelling and the role of the listener-reader. What Invisible Planets offers then is a reflection, a critique, a challenge, a treasure trove of possibility and a way of viewing the world anew.
1. “Finally, when the building stood up before them like a living person, they had scattered in terror as though they had given birth to a monster.” (Folding Beijing)
Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” introduces us to Lao Dao, a worker in a waste processing station, living in Beijing’s Third Space. He is desperate to find a way to travel to First Space. He yearns to save money for his daughter’s kindergarten fees; if he goes hungry for a whole year, he has calculated, he will be able to save two months’ worth. His goal seems impossible. The story is interrupted by a shout: “Go home! Go Home! The Change is about to start” and Beijing starts folding. Buildings literally break in half and flip over. First Space, populated by the higher echelons, a mere 5 million, are allotted a full day, 6am to 6am; the other side is shared by Second Space, populated by 25 million, from 6am to 10pm on the second day; and, Third Space, inhabited by 50 million people, 20 million of whom are waste workers, who are given 10pm to 6am. The cycle repeats. In 48 hours, citizens of Third Space exist only for a sixth of that time.
Travel between the Spaces is restricted and dangerous but if Lao Dao crosses and successfully delivers a message, he will earn 200,000 yuan, money that is inconceivable in Third Space. The social and financial disparity of the Spaces is brought to stark attention when Lao Dao gets to Second Space. The student who has hired him casually mentions that 200,000 yuan is only two months of his internship stipend; he seems to have no awareness of Lao Dao’s life, saying: “I was attending a symposium, you know, the one that discussed the UN’s debt situation? You must have heard of it…” When Lao Dao reaches First Space, he is offered another 100,000 yuan, only a weeks’ worth of salary here. Lao Dao’s own salary is 10,000 yuan a month. This abyss-like divide encapsulates perfectly the way our own societies are, in practice, increasingly segregated and how the privileged, however good-natured, often have no tangible conception of the impoverished realities of others’ lives. Except, while the citizens of “Folding Beijing” are literally obscured from each other’s views, we don’t have the same excuse.
What struck me most about this story was its architecture. Spatially segregated dystopias are rife in popular literature, with cities cut up into districts, underground-overground habitation or multi-storied separations, but this idea of a folding structure combined with a time-allotted existence is both disturbing and ingenious. The thought of living only nine hours, with the majority of that time spent scraping out waste food and unsticking bloodied pads from their plastic wrappers, will be inconceivable to almost all readers. Yet Lao Dao’s acceptance and humility is palpable, making his situation all the more moving: “[First Space] was a beautiful, beautiful place but it had nothing to do with him.” Of course, it was Lao Dao’s own father and million other migrants like him who constructed the city – then struggled for a place in Third Space. It’s not an unfamiliar story: invite labourers from around the world, exploit their skills, then discard or disown them, or if allowing them to stay, make them and their descendants internalize what an honor it is to be there. When Lao Dao happens to be at the 50th anniversary celebration of new Beijing, he quietly notes that none of the construction photos include any images of the workers. They have been erased from the narrative.
Likewise, in Chen Qiufang’s “The Flower of Shazui” we get a backdrop of rapid urbanization and the conflict and consequences of forced constructions. In the story, Shenzen is divided by The Fence, outside a wilderness, inside the Special Economic Zone: “The Berlin Wall never truly fell.” In 2014, the government decided to tear down the fence but both sides opposed it. Within, they feared they would be overwhelmed by migrants (another familiar story touted by most mainstream media nowadays), and outside, there was anger at being abandoned and now exploited for their only resource — land. The narrator lives in Shazui, once a sleepy fishing village, now a cramped residential space: “Because rent is cheap, every kind of migrant can be found here, struggling.” Of course, spaces like Shazui end up being “ghettoized.” The irony is that when urbanization was forced on them, the villagers raced to build towering flats, hoping to maximize residential space, but before they could claim reimbursement, the government ran out of resources to pay them. The villagers built a new story every three days, a tragic combination of desperation, shrewdness and wasted technological efficiency. Now “these hastily erected buildings remain like historical ruins, witnesses to history.”
Chen Qiufang also tackles modernization and the control of time in his story “The Fish of Lijiang.” The narrator, an ambitious workaholic sent to rehab for Psychological Neural-Functional Disorder II, reminisces about the last time he went to Lijiang. Ten years ago, he was a free spirit and Lijiang an idyllic haven. Except the city has completely changed: the inhabitants rent out space on their bodies, chests and foreheads flashing with LED adverts; footpath hawkers, old men with falcons, are all robots; the sky is blue because of condensation control and scatter index standardisation. He is enraged that nothing is “authentic.” His sense of entitlement captures rather well the attitude of tourists and voluntourists who swarm to “exotic” locations and expect them to be untouched by the legacy of tourism, commerciality and capitalism. His desire for “authentic” is a well-known goal of the privileged, often Western, traveller.
Hao Jingfang’s “Invisible Planets” also touches on this phenomenon. In the narrator’s recounting of planets, we come across Pimaceh whose inhabitants all have differing versions of their history and all loudly proclaim they are the real people of Pimaceh. The reality: “Everyone on this world is a visitor. There are no natives at all.” At one point, the listener, who we assume is a child, complains about the tales: “Why is every planet filled with visitors across the stars? I don’t like this. It makes them sound like zoos.” Indeed, this would be an astute analogy for our own tourism industries, with its multitude packages offering a chance to meet and live with real natives, and the travel narratives of foreigners which get subsumed into the mainstream, transforming stereotype or subjective experience to fact.
II. “So we are all lab mice.” (The Fish of Lijiang)
In Lijiang, the narrator takes heart that at least the school of tiny red fish he spotted ten years ago are still there, swimming and struggling against the current. Until he drops a pebble in the water and realizes they are a holographic projection. It’s clear there is something not quite right about Lijiang. The woman he meets tells him a riddle: “I didn’t choose you, you didn’t choose me. I’m the other half of you. I don’t have your symptoms, you don’t have mine.” The truth comes as a shock: he is part of a wide-scale experiment of “time sense compression” whose side effects results in the symptoms he has; the woman works as a Nurse in a Time Care Unit where old important men are kept in tubes and machines for the opposite therapy, “time sense dilation”, essentially prolonging life. However, “time sense compression” is forced on employees without their knowledge or consent, legitimised by loopholes in labour laws and the complicity of an uncaring government.
“The Fish of Lijiang” offers an interesting reflection and distillation of the common feelings we experience of time slipping by too quickly, of being caught up in a race against our peers, of the pressing need to achieve things by milestone ages (25 amazing writers under 25; 30 brilliant entrepreneurs under 30; 40 badass people under 40, etc). The narrator’s realization that he is just a cog in the wheel, not the highly-valued employee he considers himself, speaks very much of the disillusionment with nine to five desk jobs that I’m sure we will all experience at some point. The story itself opens with a dream where there is an option to pick two closed fists; the narrator picks one, it unfurls, empty. By the end of the story, he realizes both fists are empty. The two closed fists, like the holographic fish, become a rather ironic illusion of choice, symbolizing the removal of all agency.
Chen Qiufan also explores these themes of powerlessness, exploitation and conspiracy in “The Year of the Rat.” Like the allusion to lab mice in Lijiang, in this story, he draws out the parallels between the human soldiers and their prey (genetically modified Neorats), building up to a climax where the two species literally become indistinguishable in a hallucination-laden battle, questioning the dichotomies of innocence and culpability, human and other. Neorats, designed to walk upright and to be imported as luxury pets, have escaped and are causing havoc in the city; the rodent control force’s goal is to kill their quota of Neorats, be honorably discharged and secure good jobs. We get hints of conspiracy early on when the soldiers discover pregnant male rats. One theory is that manufacturers have tweaked genes to maximise reproductivity and purposely released the Neorats, unhappy with the incredibly low profit margin and seeking to gain leverage on the government.
Yet, though the Neorat population increases, exterminating quotas never change. When they follow the rats, the soldiers discover cylindrical structures: nests and birthing rooms; they see rats hanging from trees, and further evidence of religion and hierarchical society. The narrator is plagued with questions: Do the rats have agriculture? Do they keep settlement? The antagonist, Black Cannon, a bloodthirsty soldier tells him: “You need to stop thinking they’re people.” Black Cannon’s words are the familiar strains of a Frankenstein-esque shunning and demonization of one’s creation, especially after signs of sentience. More significantly, they are an unsettling echo of the way soldiers speak of the other side in modern day warfare, the way perpetrators justify violence and cruelty against their victims.
“I think the rats didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just like us, doing the best they can in this world. But our role is to chase them, and their role is to be chased. If we swapped roles, it would make no difference.”
The Neorats, whilst chilling in their possibility of intelligence, are also in some ways the embodiment of the animalistic other, uncivilized and inhuman, that we encounter in colonial literature and in modern day journalism. Chen Qiufan doesn’t shy away from making these comparisons. Upon seeing a Neorat standing on its hind legs, the narrator remarks that it is “like another soldier missing home” and he “imagine[s] the ceremonial procession and the mystical rituals [of the rats]. It must have been as wondrous as the scene in Tiananmen Square when the flag is raised on National Day.” In the end, there is no real victory. Inexplicably, the Neorats turn on themselves, ripping each other to shreds “as if some genetic switch had been switched by an invisible hand.” The narrator realizes that everything has been preordained; they are all pawns and in warfare, all sacrifices are justified, regardless of which side has the losses. It’s a haunting reminder of our contemporary wars and current bombings, of mass scale civilian casualties and government complicity; a reminder of the “official story” the public get and all the other truths that are, as in “The Year of the Rat,” “meant to be forgotten.”
III. “Let us build a healthy and stable Web!” (The City of Silence)
Ma Bayong likewise interrogates the idea of state conspiracy and control in “The City of Silence.” The State is ruled by the “the appropriate authorities… a semantically vague phrase… full of authority and the power to intimidate.” ARVARDAN19842015BNKF is a code-programmer who works on projects blindly, dreams of hearing a real human voice, and has repressed frustrations which he can’t express because “tired, annoyed and other negative words were all dangerous words.” State control is such that people can only communicate from a List of Healthy Words; after every word they speak they must pause, after every word they type, they must use a slash; there are no books, only a few approved websites pre-loaded on people’s computers; socialization is discouraged and sex outside marriage prohibited.
Arvardan’s inability to articulate how he feels even to himself encapsulates the power of language, the primal need for it, and the true force of censorship. Control and surveillance in the State is almost absolute. People must wear The Listener if they leave their rooms. Increasingly, they choose silence. In our own world where journalists and bloggers are routinely targeted, where you only have to google ‘journalist’ and ‘arrested’ to get exhaustive lists of countries with the highest count of imprisoned journalists, where the new “leader of the free world” publicly attempts to silence any media outlet which criticizes him, this nightmarish vision of censorship feels too close for comfort.
By chance, Arvardan discovers the Talking Club, a group of people who meet secretly to talk, recite passages of 1984 and have sex. He falls in love with Artemis (love is not a Healthy Word). However, crisis after crisis awaits: the club is discovered; Arvardan realizes his coding helped create new Listener technology which led to their arrest; when he encounters Artemis again, she is irrevocably changed; when he moves to speak, he finds the list of healthy words is finally empty. It is in this moment, when he feels he has nothing to lose, that he decides to find the mountain rebels. “The City of Silence” is a horrific vision of the complete loss of language. It is also a searching meditation on the extremes we must be pushed to before we step out of our comfort zones, on the moments that produce the motivating spark that finally drive us to action.
IV. “The human race needs to start thinking about who is going to support us in our old age.” (Taking Care of God)
With a more playful tone and a sense of humour, Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” and Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” both explore themes of old age and filial duty. After an accident, Tongtong’s grandfather comes to live in her house and her parents bring home a prototype robot, Ah Fu, to be his carer. Tongtong discovers that Ah Fu is not a real robot but operated virtually by Wang, a volunteer student involved in developing the new technology. Grandpa, however, is beyond his time: he has the idea of operating Ah Fu himself to look after his ill friend, then uses Ah Fu to continue his clinic work to treat the elderly. It leads to something of a social revolution. Old people begin using Ah Fu to continue their hobbies: “No one had imagined that Ah Fu could be put to all these uses. No one had thought that men and women in their seventies and eighties could still be so creative and imaginative.” Xia Jia highlights the way we underestimate and infantilize the elderly. Of course, they have reduced motor abilities; however, there is a tendency, especially in the West, to box the elderly away in care homes without a desire to think of nurturing alternatives. Grandpa falls ill again and Tongtong, who once resented his foul mood and interference, now appreciates the limited time she has with him. “Tongtong’s Summer” is an extremely moving ode to the older generation and a reminder to us all to think of our own loved ones.
“Taking Care of God” continues this theme of filial duty, spotlighting the flip side, neglect, abuse and pity. Liu Cixin presents us with a rather comical scenario of two billion Gods (the whole long white robes, hair and beard deal) landing on Earth wanting to spend their old age with their “children.” Every family is stipulated to look after their own God and provided a stipend. At first, the humans admire and honour their guests; however, when they realize the Gods are useless, their knowledge too advanced, and are essentially leaching resources, they become embittered and cruel. It’s the perfect metaphor for the way that older generations tend to be regarded as a drain on time and resources. In the end, the God civilization retreats not because of the abuse they experience at the hand of their “children” but because it can’t stand their pity, not with the knowledge of its own galactic achievements which are inconceivable to humans. Again, we are faced with a poignant parallel of the way we forget that the elderly are full of stories and have lived enriching lives long before we were alive. The God civilization’s chorus of “Sorry to be so much trouble. Sorry to be so much trouble” when asking humans for refuge is a particularly powerful and thought-provoking moment.
Invisible Planets is a journey across time and space, traversing multiple imaginations and worlds. The stories bring you face to face with your own limitations and fears. They challenge, move and inspire – and in the words of the storyteller of “Invisible Planets,” they all leave you a little changed.
“When I am done telling these stories, when you’re done listening to these stories, I am no longer I, and you are no longer you. In this afternoon, we briefly merged into one. After this, you will always carry a bit of me, and I will always carry a bit of you, even if we both forget this conversation.” – Invisible Planets
 The collection also ends with three essays by Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan and Xia Jia but this review will focus on the stories.