content by

Alexis Ong

Big Ideas and Intimate Portraits in Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu is an ideas guy—a Big Ideas guy. Much of his writing, notably the epic Three-Body Problem saga, spans thousands and even millions of years. Even if you’re not a fan of technical hard sci-fi that leans on the dry side of storytelling, you have to give it up for the scope of his ideas as he marries the mundane human world with far-reaching cosmic changes that take place over millennia.

A typical Liu story often follows a familiar path: dispassionate alien civilization comes to Earth with technology beyond our ken, humanity bands together in the face of potential disaster, usually with a clinical resolution that hammers home our insignificance in the universe. By the time you get there, though, it’s usually after a marathon through talking-head dialogue and looming walls of exposition that reinforce the impossible galactic scale and scope of the problems at hand. The titular story in The Wandering Earth anthology is no different, and probably the most forgettable of them all (it’s also nothing like the Netflix film adaptation of the same name, which is more of an action blockbuster focused on a pair of sibling protagonists).

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A Murder Mystery in Space: Far From the Light of Heaven by Tade Thompson

There’s nothing I love more than a good locked-room murder mystery, an eternally beloved subgenre of crime writing that embodies humanity’s dogged need to know. But these can also be, more often than not, one-dimensional narrative dioramas that stick to the basic formula without distinction. This is, unsurprisingly, not the case with Far From the Light of Heaven, Tade Thompson’s newest novel which marries shades of gothic horror with a sleuthing mystery and hard sci-fi rooted in real astronauts’ accounts of living in space.

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Writing the Unknowable in Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, Translated by Jeremy Tiang

As a diaspora Chinese reader, plumbing the depths of Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, translated to English by Jeremy Tiang, is at once warmly familiar and exhilaratingly alien. Set in a fictionalized version of Yong’an city (or perhaps, it seems a pseudonym for an archetypal anycity), somewhere in an alternate dimension, it tells a beautifully-threaded story of Yong’an’s titular beasts through the eyes of a zoologist-turned-novelist with a penchant for booze and impulsive decisions.

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Rogue A.I.s and Pharma Tycoons in S.B. Divya’s Machinehood

S.B. Divya’s Machinehood brims with equally familiar and foreign concepts—predatory mega-corporations, and public performativity, and the fear of rogue AI are widespread parts of our present and so much of our near future; at the same time, Divya offers an earnest look at one person’s path to radical change, and perhaps the biggest fiction of all: humanity’s ability to accept the need for change. So much of its narrative journey hinges on its reader’s own biases around ambient Islamophobia and American exceptionalism, almost to the point where digesting the novel’s first few acts feels like taking in a bizarro Tom Clancy storyline.

In Divya’s future, the world relies on WAIs (weak artificial intelligence), public tip jars that function like existential Patreons, smart self-configuring material called “blox,” and a massive mass-produced pill industry to stay mentally and physiologically on par with robots. Everyone has a personal agent—a WAI implant that functions as a 24/7 networked concierge; Welga’s is named Por Qué, which she got when she was just seventeen. We’re introduced to protagonist Olga “Welga” Ramirez as a private security guard (or “shield”) with a decorated military past, but she’s more interested in good coffee, slow food, and carving out a stable existence with her partner, Connor. Naturally, this doesn’t last for long—it turns out that Welga has to save the world.

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Life, Death, and Coming of Age in Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control

This is the story of Sankofa and how she came to be—an icon, a feared pseudo-spirit, and a many-faceted metaphor. Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novella, Remote Control, is the melancholy tale of Sankofa’s search for peace and closure as she evolves into something far beyond an adolescent girl. Set in a futuristic Africa, autonomous machines, drones, and robots exist side by side with long-held cultural and spiritual beliefs—witchcraft is alive and well in the future, as it will be as long as the human imagination endures. It’s a classic coming-of-age story where a young protagonist endures personal devastation, only to adapt and grow into her own skin.

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Trauma and Imagination in Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata’s new novel is a methodical descent into a very special, almost rational kind of madness. Like much of her previous work, Earthlings starts off as a bleak examination of conformity, reproduction, and sexuality in Japanese culture. Pain and otherness are the wretched heart of Murata’s oeuvre, laced with the weary practicality that comes with enduring such a hostile reality. It is, after all, exhausting to be yourself, especially in a society that judges and punishes any and all transgressions.

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The Unsung Muse of Speculative Fiction Is a Wikipedia Community

The universe of speculative fiction is an ever-expanding monstrosity, often merging with horror, science fiction, fantasy, and similar realms of weirdness. These genres can cover everything from full metal gore and peculiar truths to hidden monsters and secret conspiracies.

But whether they’re dry and deadpan or gloriously maximalist, many of these stories are often born from small inspirations. Some of the most unnerving narratives are anchored in the familiar—ideas and objects that we’re comfortable with in day-to-day life. Some of the most unsettling books, films, and games share roots with one of the most fascinating fictional worlds on the internet—one that uses the mundane form of a wikipedia community to draw readers into the fold.

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A Guide to Condor Heroes: The Martial Arts Epic That Influenced All Your Faves

Flitting effortlessly between treetops, a young man faces off against a nefarious opponent as others—including his beloved—watch with concern. The two fighters defy terrestrial physics, flying from branch to branch in an exhilarating display of combat mastery. This is the sort of scene I grew up watching on screens both small and large—a deadly dance that could be plucked from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers, or really, any martial arts film where two rivals are determined to destroy each other in mid-air while also having a sharp exchange of words.

In the same way that Star Wars defined a generation of Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, there’s a common ancestor in the world of martial arts pop culture. The cinematic qualities of the iconic “flying while fighting” trope were popularized by Jin Yong—the pen name of Chinese author, journalist, screenwriter, and film director Louis Cha—who passed away in 2018. Through his fiction, he left a literary legacy that combined film techniques like flashbacks, fast cuts, and bold changes in perspective, creating a new visual foundation for martial arts today. Many of his scenes have become familiar visual flourishes in kung fu movies, and a distinctive way of telling stories in an age-old Chinese genre: wuxia, the realm of martial heroes.

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