When putting together Broken Stars, a new anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, my guiding principle was to pick stories that stayed with me in some way, like the memory of a shooting star on a summer night. When one is finished with a book, sometimes all that remains are such brilliant, unfading strokes across the vast, unfeeling empyrean.
Here is a list of my favorite bits from some of the stories—think of it as a stargazing photo album.
Baoshu, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear”
The sun had fallen beneath the horizon in the east, and the long day was about to end. But tomorrow, the sun would rise in the west again, bathing the world in a kinder light.
In this story, as two children born in the first decades of the 21st century grow up, fall in love, and grow old (together and apart), they find themselves experiencing the historical events that have come to define contemporary China in reverse order: the Beijing Olympics, the Tiananmen protests, the economic reforms, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine, the Korean War, the Japanese Invasion … I remember breaking down in tears as I neared the end, much as I did when I read Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. It was days before I could contemplate the story calmly again. When speculative fiction deals with historical atrocities, there is often a danger that the suffering of hundreds of millions is reduced to mere background, to bare setting for some novum or clever idea. But Baoshu avoids this trap brilliantly. The speculative conceit here is a tool to highlight the agony and rage of history, to bear witness to the real events that my great grand parents, grandparents, parents, and myself witnessed and experienced, to make the abstractions of history concrete.
Cheng Jingbo, “Under a Dangling Sky”
My headphones stuck up like the feathered crest of a cockatiel. When the sea was calm, I could see my reflection like a slender, lonesome cormorant.
The very first time I read this story, the whimsical images struck me: singing dolphins, an ear made from a shell that probes the heart of the sea, a spewing fountain that reaches up to the stars, the universe reconceived as an apple … Cheng manages to weave together characteristics of mythology, fairytale, and science fiction so seamlessly here that the sense of wonder seems to be a tangible substance, a material co-equal with the air, land, and water that are used to build the world.
Han Song, “Submarines”
Holding hollow reeds in our mouths, we snorkeled to the middle of the river, out of sight, until we were right next to the anchored subs. Large wooden cages dangled from cables beneath the hulls, and the turbid river water swirled around the cage bars. Inside, we saw many peasant children, their earth-toned bodies nude, swim around like fish, their slender limbs nimbly finning the water and their skin glowing in the silt-filtered light.
The denial of full social welfare benefits to migrant workers from rural China, in large measure responsible for the prosperity of the country’s cities, has been a record of shame and the source of many social problems, many of them sure to worsen over time. In this story, the image of rural workers and their families living in submarines, literally sealed off from the urban residents and treated as exotic animals or aliens, is at once haunting and ambivalent. While submarines endow the inhabitants with autonomy and power, they also deny them any possibility of integration with the urban residents. Like much of Han Song’s writing, there is no simple “message” to take out of these multivalent metaphorical vehicles. The sense of deep unease, guilt, and unsettling anxiety that prevailed upon me afterward is one of the core characteristics of Han Song’s fiction.
Xia Jia, “Goodnight, Melancholy”
When the caretaker arrived, I turned on the light-screen around my bed. From inside, I could see out, but anybody outside couldn’t see or hear me. The door opened, and an iVatar entered, gliding silently along on hidden wheels. A crude, cartoonish face with an empty smile was projected onto its smooth, egg-shaped head.
The yearning to communicate, to connect, even with a “consciousness” that we know isn’t real, is a deeply human impulse. In an age when robots seem more real and compassionate than the human-shaped figures behind trolling accounts, it can be dangerous and confusing to try to reach out. The portrayal of the isolation imposed by depression in this story was so powerful that I couldn’t finish it in one reading. Moreover, the story pulls off the delicate trick of positioning the reader as a judge in a variation of Turing’s imitation game, not as a gimmick or display of technical skill, but as an act of empathy.
Chen Qiufan, “Coming of the Light”
“Let’s find a famous and respected monk to consecrate this app—‘bring light into it’—so that every picture it takes becomes a charm to ward off evil. We’ll create a sharing economy of blessings.”
Much like Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun in Beijing is a hotbed of both cutting edge technology and pseudo-spirituality. (The cult of the Singularity is at least as ridiculous as the mock-faiths and superstitions of the characters in this story). Chen’s acerbic wit made me laugh—before he abruptly shifted in tone and made me reflect on the way technology preys on our yearning for the transcendent.
Tang Fei, “Broken Stars”
She was going to cross the street and go through the revolving door of the McDonald’s, where she would sit on a sofa chair and sip from a large Coke. She would do nothing and think about nothing, until school let out.
The terrors lurking beneath the surface of the ennui of high school life are embodied in every line of this story. I’ve always been fond of speculative fiction that injects a tiny element of the uncanny into the mundane, and then, from that humble beginning, blows up the world.
Zhang Ran, “The Snow of Jinyang”
“All the fire-oil carriages running about in Jinyang were built here. They make up more than half the Institute’s income. The newest model will be released soon. It’s called Elong Musk—for the long-lasting fragrance of fire-oil after the vehicle darts out of sight. Even the name sounds fast!”
Zhang Ran’s story plays with the tropes of chuanyue, or a particular type of time-travel fiction in which someone armed with modern scientific knowledge goes into the past for ends selfish, altruistic, or both. I love the skillful way in which Zhang Ran’s hero not only reinvents the Internet for China of the tenth century, but also recreates much of our Internet culture. My co-translator, Carmen Yiling Yan, and I had a great time figuring out how to recast in English the deliberately playful, jejune tone of a genre that is intentionally self-parodic.
Regina Kanyu Wang, “The Brain Box”
The desire to disguise our thoughts, to appear better than we really are, hounds most of us. Only the young can be reckless enough to accept the prospect of revealing to the world the nakedness of their thoughts.
The central conceit of this story, a “black box”-like recorder for the brain, stuck in my head like an annoying song. Again and again, I imagined what life would be like if such a device were possible, capable of broadcasting one’s most private thoughts posthumously. It is at once liberating and terrifying.
I could go on and do this for every story in the anthology, but I think it preferable at this point for readers to make their own album of indelible memories after reading Broken Stars. Let me know what you find memorable in its pages.
A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, Ken Liu is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty (The Grace of Kings), a silkpunk epic fantasy series and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, a collection. In addition to his original fiction, he is also the translator for Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide, as well as the editor of Invisible Planets and Broken Stars.