All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.
THE DARK FOREST by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen):
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/19/2016]
THE DARK FOREST by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen) (ISBN 978-0-765-37708-1) is the second book of the "Trisolaris" trilogy. The first, THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, won the Hugo Award for 2014, the first translated fiction work to do so. (Well, maybe the second, because another translated work, "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, won the same year for novelette, and that category is announced before the novel category.) Anyway, the first and third books in this trilogy are translated by Ken Liu (no relation), but this middle volume is translated by Joel Martinsen. There is no change of tone that I can detect, so at least Ken Liu and Joel Martinson managed to give a consistent feel to the trilogy. (I'm assuming that volume three will not demonstrate any major dissonances.)
It goes without saying that as the middle book of a trilogy, THE DARK FOREST cannot really stand on its own. Without having read the first book, a reader might be able to follow what is going on, but not with the same understanding. The odd thing, though, is that the third book does not entirely seem necessary. I mean, it is clear that the end of THE DARK FOREST is, if not a cliffhanger, then at least open to multiple interpretations of subsequent events. But it does not feel as if it must be resolved; not everything in life has a well-defined end, and we don't get to find out how everything turns out.
Or maybe I've just been reading too much Frank Stockton.
[There does seem to be a bit of an inconsistency. On one hand, someone objects that research is being spent only on low-end tech (chemical/fission rockets rather than rather than fusion). On the other, he also says that there is only limited research on closed ecosystems, which I would think of as low-tech, at least in some sense. Maybe I'm just missing the point here, though.]
To order The Dark Forest from amazon.com, click here.
THE GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/14/2015]
I started THE GRACE OF KINGS by Ken Liu (ISBN 978-1-4814-2427-1), but ultimately decided it was too intimidating. Over six hundred pages, with a glossary, "A Guide to Pronunciation" a three-page "List of Major Characters", a page of "Notes", and end-paper maps, it is the first of a series (trilogy?). Even though it is claimed to be a standalone novel, that's a lot to commit to--especially when blurbers compare it to "Game of Thrones" (by which one presumes they mean "A Song of Ice and Fire"). Add to that the fact that while Liu may not use apostrophes with wild abandon, as do so many epic fantasies, he does scatter accent marks, umlauts, and cedillas hither and yon.
This has certainly garnered rave reviews. But at my age one must start being thriftier with how one decides what books to read. I have nothing against long works--I am reading Edward Gibbon's A HISTORY OF THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and I plan to move on to Samuel Pepys's "Diary" (both unabridged) next--but one must begin to pick and choose.
To order The Grace of Kings from amazon.com, click here.
INVISIBLE PLANETS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY CHINESE SF IN TRANSLATION edited and translated by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/24/2017]
INVISIBLE PLANETS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY CHINESE SF IN TRANSLATION edited and translated by Ken Liu (ISBN 978-0-7653-8419-5) includes thirteen stories by seven authors, as well as three essays on Chinese science fiction. The two authors probably most familiar to Western readers would be Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang (or alternatively, Cixin Liu and Jingfang Hao). Liu (no relation to Ken Liu) won a Hugo for his novel THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM, and this volume has a self-contained excerpt from it. Hao also won a Hugo, for his short story "Folding Beijing", which is also included here.
Ken Liu has attempted to include stories showing a range of approaches and styles. One is its first publication in English, while the rest are reprints from F$SF, CLARKESWORLD, INTERZONE, UPGRADED, WORLD SF BLOG, LIGHTSPEED, UNCANNY, CARBIDE TIPPED PENS, and tor.com. Of these, CLARKESWORLD has made a concerted effort to publish science fiction in translation on a regular basis; as was noted on the "Coode Street Podcast", this approach is much more effective and respectful than having a one-shot issue of works in translation, and then returning to all English-language stories for all the issues after that. But it is also more difficult, because you have to work at continually finding works worth translating (mostly in languages you do not read), and finding translators for them. Luckily, for Chinese science fiction, we have Ken Liu, a real treasure, dedicated to finding and translating Chinese science fiction, even though that takes time away from writing his own fiction.
The variety of works Ken Liu has chosen means that not all of them will please everyone. I found Chen Quifan's stories a bit too cyberpunk for me. Xia Jia's stories "A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight" and "Tongtong's Summer" reminded me a bit of Zenna Henderson, not in subject matter, but in feeling. (Or at least in how I remember Henderson; it has been a long time.) Ma Boyong's "The City of Silence" could be described as "1984 meets FAHRENHEIT 451", and indeed there are internal references to support this. Ma's other works as described by Liu in his introduction sound fascinating, but he also says that the myriad cultural references in them would make them incomprehensible to most Western readers. Liu's comments about how the Chinese version of "The City of Silence" had to be phrased to get past the censors, and how the English version changed that are worth reading.
Liu compares Hao Jingfang's "Invisible Planets" to the work of Italo Calvino; I see a similarity to Jorge Luis Borges as well in the use of description rather than plot or characters to define the work. "Folding Beijing" is a Hugo winner; 'nuff said.
Tang Fei's "Call Girl" just did not work for me, nor did Chang Jingbo's "Grave of the Fireflies". Liu Cixin's "The Circle" is the excerpt from THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM I mentioned earlier, and I really liked his "Taking Care of God", which I would rate as the best in the book.
Of course, one of the things to say about Chinese science fiction is that it is not a monolithic genre. Yes, the effects of Communism and its decline have influenced some Chinese writers, but others draw their inspiration from post-colonialism, the successes of science, the failures of science, and even the influx of Western science fiction, both in English and in translation. There are visions influenced by cyberpunk, visions influenced by Chinese history and traditions, and influenced by various literary movements, and visions that defy categorization. The result is that a collection of a dozen stories can hardly represent the broad range of Chinese science fiction, anymore than a similar-sized volume could represent American science fiction. The best one can consider this is as a sampling of the past decade.
To order Invisible Planets from amazon.com, click here.
"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/22/2012]
I will admit up-front that I skipped/skimmed parts of "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" by Ken Liu (Panverse 3). Part of it consists of (graphic) descriptions of medical experiments conducted by the Japanese on Chinese prisoners during World War II, and these I skipped. Whether this disqualifies me from reviewing this, you will have to decide. In any case, Liu has a lot of different themes and threads going.
The science fictional premise is that a technique is developed that lets people experience the past as if they were there. But it is a "destructive" technique, in the sense that when someone has "gone back to" a particular time and place, no one else can ever visit that time and place again. The question of whether this would actually work as described is not clear. Is going back to a place a hundred feet to the west of the place visited allowed? As a premise, though, it is in a science fiction tradition of destructive procedures (e.g., teleportation which destroys the original). This finality, this inability to change one's mind, works as a counterpoint to the all-too-frequent trope that any problem can be solved by a wave of the technological hand. The latter is part of what Geoff Ryman et al are protesting in the "Mundane Manifesto".
But the notion that one cannot press the reset button, or have a do-over, is clearly also tied up in the historical part of the story. Whatever decisions people made in the past, they cannot go back and change them. This ties in with the issue of what people can do if they realize they have made wrong decisions, and the question of what purpose apologies, compensations, or anything else serves. And the ending, in particular, asks how much of the past is important to know, and to whom.
Liu also looks at what constitutes historical evidence. As with the Holocaust in Europe, even eyewitness testimony does not convince some people. (Although it is true that in small details--was the thief wearing a black jacket or a green one?--eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, it is usually true on the macro level--did the thief shoot ten people or just take a candy bar?) Evan thinks that sending the doubters back to experience the past will solve this but, not surprisingly, it does not. Instead they say that it is all a trick of virtual reality or some such.
All this is a lot to pack into a novella, but Liu manages it well.
"Mono no Aware" by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/28/2013]
"Mono no Aware" by Ken Liu is less about the characters, and more about the types they represent, or perhaps more about the philosophies of life they embody. (In this it is similar to Olaf Stapledon's LAST AND FIRST MEN, where the individual is more an iteration of a type or philosophy.) It is certainly has more to think about later than the other two.
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/29/2012]
Like so many others this year, "The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (F&SF 03-04/11) is a fantasy story that is more about the people's interactions and feelings than about the fantasy element. But Liu does not forget about the fantasy element or make it disposable the way some authors do, and the result is a well-balanced story.
THE PAPER MENAGERIE by Ken Liu:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/07/2016]
THE PAPER MENAGERIE by Ken Liu (ISBN 978-1-4814-4254-6) is a collection of fifteen stories, one of them new to this volume. Often one reason a new story is included in a collection is to provide something people have not seen before. In this case, it may also be to counterbalance the fact that almost all the stories are available free on-line, and (so far as I can tell) authorized by Liu.
Though both are Asian-American authors who have excelled in the short-story arena, Liu is not Ted Chiang, and unlike Chiang's first collection, this book does not contain his entire oeuvre up to this point. As such, it is possible that your favorite stories may not have been included. But the selection is of uniformly high-quality, so one cannot complain about the contents. Perhaps at some point there will be a "Complete Short Fiction of Ken Liu", though it will have to run into several volumes.
One complaint I do have is not directed at Liu at all, but at the publisher. Most collections and anthologies have the current story title as the right page header, making it a bit easier to find a story by flipping through the book. Saga Press instead uses "The Paper Menagerie" as the right page header throughout.
To order The Paper Menagerie from amazon.com, click here.