BOOK REVIEW: Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni

  • Translated by Xueting Christine Ni
  • A collection of 13 short stories translated from Chinese into English
  • Published by Solaris in 2021
  • Features a variety of science fiction subgenres
  • 427 pages
  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Like a lot of anglophone science fiction readers, I was first introduced to Chinese SF by Cixin Liu (via the work of translators Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen). I loved The Three-Body Problem, and the sequel The Dark Forest remains one of my all-time favourite novels. Ever since I finished that trilogy, I’ve been on the lookout for more Chinese Sf being translated into English. Liu still dominates that section of my shelf, but now he is joined by many more. Hao Jingfang’s Vagabonds was my favourite book of 2019, and Ken Liu’s two anthologies Hidden Planets and Broken Stars both held a lot of great short stories. Sinopticon is the latest translated work to catch my eye. There are some names I recognise, many I don’t. It’s also the first Chinese SF I’ve read that hasn’t been published by Head of Zeus. I’m hoping this is the first of many releases in the vein from Solaris, and that other publishers will wake up to this great opportunity too.

As with any anthology, there’s a great deal of variety in the stories. The common thread running through most of them is that they very modern. Not just in release dates, but in style. There’s a list of original publications in the back and, as you’d expect, the names of various science fiction magazines crop up. Now, I don’t know what the Chinese short story market is like, but I don’t pay much attention the UK and US short story magazines, and a lot of the stories in Sinopticon feel like they’d fit well in there. What does that mean? It means that they are more about character and emotion than plot or setting. This is a feature of most modern short form storytelling. To bee completely honest, it’s why I don’t read that many modern anthologies. The stories here are all very good examples of that style, but it’s not a style that appeals to me personally.

With a lot of anthologies, I’m pulled in by one or two authors in particular. For Sinopticon, that author is Hao Jingfang. ‘Quinkun and Alex’ doesn’t hit the same heights as Vagabonds, but with its vastly smaller page count, it can hardly be expected to. What it does give us is a fascinating look at the role of artificial intelligence in society, as well as the relationship between children and computers. If my tolerance for child protagonists were higher, this would have been my favourite entry in the anthology. As it stands, that title goes to Bao Shu’s ‘The Absolution Experiment.’ This is the shortest story here, but packs a heavy punch. It hits all my thematic buttons, and delivers a truly grim ending to the possibilities offered by human immortality. An honourable mention must go to Jiang Bo’s ‘Starship: Library,’ which is one of few modern stories that offer the era-spanning narratives I want to see more of, and is highly entertaining to boot.

With any work of translation, there’s going to be an issue of cultural relevance. If the original work mentions a legendary hero, do you leave the name untouched, substitute a similar hero from the culture and language you’re translating into, or add a footnote. The method I like to see is the footnote method, and I’m glad to see that applied here. It’s used almost exclusively for names, though some methods of cooking also take a little explaining to fully understand their significance to the story. Each story also comes with a translator’s note. While some anthologies use these to preface a story, here they follow the stories. I think this is a better way to go about it, as it leaves the story to stand alone the first time you read it.

All in all, Sinopticon is yet more proof that we need to see more translated works in the English-speaking world. Not all of the stories worked for me, but that’s true of any anthology. And if any of the authors involved here release more SF in the English language, I’ll probably be queuing up to buy it.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you may also like:
Vagabonds, by Hao Jingfang
Hold Up The Sky, by Cixin Liu
Broken Stars, edited by Ken Liu

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Sinopticon, edited by Xueting Christine Ni

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