Book review: Broken Stars anthology offers helpful glimpse into world of Chinese sci-fi

The 16 pieces in Broken Stars will give readers a helpful glimpse into Chinese science fiction stories from the 2010s - even if not all of them shine with the same brilliance.
The 16 pieces in Broken Stars will give readers a helpful glimpse into Chinese science fiction stories from the 2010s - even if not all of them shine with the same brilliance.PHOTO: HEAD OF ZEUS

BROKEN STARS: CONTEMPORARY CHINESE SCIENCE FICTION IN TRANSLATION

Edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus/Paperback/ 479 pages/ $29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3 stars


SINGAPORE - Apocalyptic visions of Shanghai, an errant time traveller, and a missing train are some of the things that loom large in a new collection of Chinese science fiction stories.

Edited and translated into English by author Ken Liu, the 16 pieces in Broken Stars will give readers a helpful glimpse into Chinese science fiction stories from the 2010s - even if not all of them shine with the same brilliance.

Chinese science fiction isn't a recent phenomenon: the genre as we know it dates back to the late Qing dynasty.

But its star has been rising, if growing global prominence is anything to go by. Liu Cixin's award-winning "Three-Body" trilogy (2006 to 2010) about aliens was translated by Ken Liu into English, and has since gained legions of fans around the world, including former United States President Barack Obama.

Viewed in this light, Broken Stars is an important addition to the English-translated Chinese sci-fi landscape. Published three years after Invisible Planets, another anthology edited by Liu, it spans a wider range of authors - from the acclaimed Liu Cixin and Xia Jia to lesser-known ones such as Regina Kanyu Wang.

However, readers might be bored or frustrated by several one-dimensional pieces that have slipped through the net. These do little beyond presenting a central conceit - such as time travel, or the idea of time moving in reverse. They might seem complicated, but are hardly compelling or profound.

Gu Shi's Reflection, about a woman who predicts the future by recalling her memories, milks the the idea of "reflecting" to death.

Then there is Baoshu's baggy short story What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear, about a modern Chinese man who recounts events in his life - including his thwarted relationship with a woman named Qiqi.

In this story, society literally regresses backwards in time: The narrative moves from the Beijing Olympics to SARS, and eventually to the Cultural Revolution, Korean War and Second World War.

This absurd and epic fantasy also features a fictionalised cameo by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose musings add force to Baoshu's hope"that all the historical tragedies our nation has experienced will not repeat in the future".

Still, once we get past the clever gimmick there doesn't seem to be much else the narrative has to offer.

The more memorable stories in Broken Stars are those which tease the reader with a fascinating premise, without getting bogged down by exposition or excessive self-consciousness.

Take, for example, Liu Cixin's short story Moonlight, where a man in Shanghai receives phone calls from his future self from the years 2123, 2119 and 2125, urging him to do something to avert apocalyptic disaster.

Another comical piece is Zhang Ran's The Snow Of Jinyang, where a prince in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period turns out to be a stranded time-traveller.

The story, which begins in 979 CE Jinyang, is littered with Chinese drama tropes and anachronisms such as ray-ban glasses and an "internet" or web of interconnected silk threads.

Broken Stars is a box of haphazard inventions, some colourful and entertaining, others obtuse and dull. Taken as a whole, however, it is an instructive collection that offers much-needed inroads into the world of Chinese science-fiction.

If you liked this, read: Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction In Translation ($18.95, Head of Zeus, 2016, Books Kinokuniya), an anthology of 13 stories edited and translated by Ken Liu.