Book Review: Broken Stars (Edited/ Translated) by Ken Liu

Broken Stars, edited by multi award-winning writer Ken Liu – translator of the bestselling and Hugo Award-winning novel The Three Body Problem by acclaimed Chinese author Cixin Liu – is his second thought-provoking anthology of Chinese short speculative fiction. Following Invisible Planets, Liu has now assembled the most comprehensive collection yet available in the English language, sure to thrill and gratify readers developing a taste and excitement for Chinese SF.

Some of the included authors are already familiar to readers in the West (Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, both Hugo winners); some are publishing in English for the first time. Because of the growing interest in newer SFF from China, virtually every story here was first published in Chinese in the 2010s.

The stories span the range from short-shorts to novellas, and evoke every hue on the emotional spectrum. Besides stories firmly entrenched in subgenres familiar to Western SFF readers such as hard SF, cyberpunk, science fantasy, and space opera, the anthology also includes stories that showcase deeper ties to Chinese culture: alternate Chinese history, chuanyue time travel, satire with historical and contemporary allusions that are likely unknown to the average Western reader. While the anthology makes no claim or attempt to be “representative” or “comprehensive,” it demonstrates the vibrancy and diversity of science fiction being written in China at this moment.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore the history of Chinese science fiction publishing, the state of contemporary Chinese fandom, and how the growing interest in science fiction in China has impacted writers who had long labored in obscurity.

I’ve been waiting to read this collection as well as Invisible Planets for a while, but as always, my backlist books get lost in the many shiny new arcs and releases I tend to gravitate towards. So, when I got the chance this month to add this to my tbr owing to two readathons, finally I was excited. And it didn’t disappoint at all.

This collection of stories felt so different from the usual books I’ve read, not that I have too much experience of reading sci-fi. This was a varied collection, not necessarily following a theme because these are essentially Ken Liu’s favorites – but I was surprised at the variety here with stories ranging from charming and sweet to reflective to dark to utterly terrifying. But what I found was that most of them were very thought provoking and reflective, forcing us to think about the kind of world we are living in and where we are heading towards. I also really enjoyed the mix of Chinese history and culture with sci-fi concepts as well as some juxtaposition with western settings. And the last three essays were a nice touch, getting me acquainted with the troubled history as well as the emergence of modern sci-fi in China, and only made me wish I could get to read something similar about the genre in my country.

I was mostly surprised that there wasn’t one story here which I truly hated or couldn’t comprehend (it usually happens to me with every collection or anthology) and this makes me even more excited for Tor’s collection next year of SFF by Chinese women and non-binary authors, one of the editors being the author of a short as well as essay in this collection.

Goodnight, Melancholy by Xia Jia

Based a bit on Alan Turing’s life, and telling the story of a depressed woman trying to find some hope and comfort in her robotic companions, this is a tale of loneliness and what we lengths we will go to try and feel a little less of it.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Moonlight by Liu Cixin

I don’t know if I should be amazed at the brilliant concept and writing in this story or despair at the hopelessness of it all towards the end. But however I feel about the story, it’s major theme is that climate change is real and unless we do something to significantly change our dependence on fossil fuels, the future of earth is not good.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Broken Stars by Tang Fei

I truly don’t know what to think of this story. It’s dark and a bit horrific, but also features a young woman who decides to take matters into her own hands after she is bullied and assaulted.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Submarines by Han Song

Another fascinating but hopeless and sad story towards the end. I’m not sure exactly what the author’s intention was but my takeaway from it was that human beings have innate survival instincts that will help them live even in excruciating circumstances, but sometimes no one can escape their fate. It also foretells the the perils of extreme modernization as well as how people will become numb to their fellow humans suffering.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Salinger and the Koreans by Han Song

An alternate history of the world kind of tale and featuring JD Salinger, the author of The Catcher and the Rye, this was again sad but reflective, and a different sort of take on communism and capitalism.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Under a Dangling Sky by Cheng Jingbo

A retelling of the Greek myth of Delphinus as well as that of Jack and the Beanstalk, this was charming and cute, and an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

What has passed shall in kinder light appear by Baoshu

Wow… this was such a profound and hard hitting story. While following two star crossed lovers from their childhood, the author explores what would happen if historical events happened in a reverse order. We touch on major events in world history as well as 20th century, but happening in the opposite order, and it was fascinating to see how much more painful it would feel to go from a capitalist market economy and technologically advanced country to the days of rationing and the Cultural Revolution, the Great Famine and the Chinese civil war. This was sad and hopeless at times, with lot of bittersweet moments, but ultimately a very well written story that leaves us with a lot of thoughts and reflections.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The New Year Train by Hao Jingfang

This was a very very short story, but asks a good question about why we don’t enjoy our journey of life when we know we are going to die one day anyway.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Robot who likes to tell tall tales by Fei Dao

Through the use of allegories involving Death himself, the author gives us a lesson on the importance of stories, how blunt truth is not always the right way to go and sometimes, adding a bit of fantasy to truth will bring more pleasure to the listeners and may even help them gradually understand the truth.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

The snow of Jinyang by Zhang Ran

This was an interesting time travel story set during a struggle between the Han and Song dynasties. While it had a lot of chemistry, physics and quantum mechanics terms which I couldn’t understand, I think ultimately it was a story about how we can’t always change destiny however hard we try.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thr Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge by Anna Wu

This one reminded me a little of the tale in Mahabharata about the boon Draupadi asks Lord Shiva in her previous life – but of course only tangentially. Otherwise, this is a story of a an author who would do anything and sacrifice everything to be a successful author, irrespective of the consequences; on the other hand, his wife just wants his love and affection.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

The First Emperor’s Games by Ma Boyong

This was actually a fun story juxtaposing the story of China’s first emperor with modern day gaming, as well as a hint of the charm of venture capitalism. This was thoroughly entertaining and I would definitely have loved to see this as part of a bigger story.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reflection by Gu Shi

Fascinating story about the link between clairvoyance and multiple personality disorder and the whole idea of past and future being memories. The narrative style of this one was very unique and it took me a bit to figure out what was happening, but once it clicked, it was a great feeling.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

The Brain Box by Regina Kanyu Wang

Another fascinating concept but the beauty of this story is in how the author exposes our constant need to present an image about ourselves to everyone around us, trying to convince ourselves that it’s our true self, hiding our innermost thoughts – but at the same time also exposing another deep side of ourselves on the internet for the whole world to see.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5

Coming of the Light by Chen Qiufan

I’m not sure I completely got this story, but I guess my takeaway from it was that most of us are just cogs in the machine and nothing much of what we do will ever impact the world around us in a significant way – all we can do is try and feel happy with what we have.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️

A History of Future Illnesses by Chen Qiufan

This was very well written but damn, so hopeless and scary. The author writes in 9 chapters about 9 diseases that will come to afflict our world in the future due to our overindulgence of technology and going to extremes. Especially one chapter about how we are completely dependent on devices and wouldn’t know what to do of cut off from them, really petrified me because it is in some ways, our current reality and I’ve no idea of what the author imagined might come true one day.

Rating:⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.5 

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