BOOK REVIEW: Broken Stars, edited by Ken Liu

Broken stars.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Series: Standalone

Genre: Various

Pages: 479

Publication Date: 19/02/19

Verdict: 5/5

 

Sixteen short stories from Chinese SF, translated and collected by Ken Liu

 

Between Clarkesworld, Tor and Head of Zeus, there’s never been a better time for an English-speaking reader to get into Chinese SF than now. Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy is undoubtedly one of the best pieces of science fiction I’ve ever read, and Ken Liu’s previous anthology Invisible Planets was utterly brilliant. So it should come as no surprise that Broken Stars is another amazing collection.

Baoshu’s ‘What Has Passed Shall In Kinder Light Appear’ is worth the price of admission alone. A haunting romance told over decades, it’s built around an idea I’ve never seen done before, and doubt I’ll see as well executed again. Starting in the present day, the characters experience world events in reverse order, but perceive them as happening in the right order. So to them, the war in Iraq comes before 9/11, which is then followed by the Cold war, and so on. It’s a fantastic idea, and is also a much easier read than my garbled attempt at an explanation could ever be. Baoshu has a gift for making the impossible seem perfectly understandable, and it makes me more excited than ever for The Redemption of Time.

Chen Quifan’s ‘A History of Future Illnesses’ too makes me excited for his upcoming translation of The Waste Tide. It’s no mean feat to make an academic essay work as a piece of fiction, but he pulls it of with ease. And a lot of the illnesses he describes are chillingly plausible, as are society’s reactions to them.

On the topic of essays, I feel obliged to mention the trio of essays that cap off the collection. Regina Kanyu Wang provides an overview of the Chinese SF scene, noting milestones like conventions and public approval. Mingwei Song gives us a piece on how scholars are approaching Chinese SF. But it’s Fei Dao’s ‘Science Fiction: Embarrassing No More’ that struck a note for me. It’s a little depressing to see that the prejudice against SF in China is as alive as it is in British Academia, but the uplifting end-note gives me hope that things are slowly improving for the genre.

The stories are a real mix of subgenres, some of which I’d never heard of before encountering this anthology. As well as hard SF from Hao Jingfang, and tech thriller from Xia Jia, there’s time travel from Zhang Ran – a Chinese variant called chuanyue, essentially a modern-day individual lost in the past, using their knowledge to change time. It’s this and Baoshu’s work in particular that rely on knowledge of Chinese history. Though Liu and his footnotes are here to help those of us who live in ignorance. Interestingly it was these China-centric stories that I favoured out of the whole collection. Whereas the others could be seen as everyday stories written in another langauge, these were something else. Something uniquely Chinese, and it was a pleasure to read them.

The only real absence I could see was space-based SF. There’s no space opera or military SF, and I can’t help but wonder if these genres are far less popular in China than they are in Britain and the USA. Or maybe, if I dare to dream, Liu is holding some delights back for a third anthology.

 

Broken Stars is a rare beast, a collection without a single bad entry. From emotional drama to humourous takes on alternative histories, there’s something here for everyone.

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