Review: Broken Stars

Broken Stars is a collection of short Chinese science fiction stories, anthologised by prolific author and translator Ken Liu – the criteria for selection being “stories that Ken Liu likes”. They’re mostly stories first published in China, many originally in Chinese, and all in the 2010s. But there the superficial resemblances stop: these stories range in tone from the strange and sad and fantastical (Chang Jingbo’s “Under a Dangling Sky”) to the hardest of hard SF (Liu Cixin’s “Moonlight”). The collection ends with three essays placing Chinese SF into the context of the nation’s history.

In fact, a preoccupation with history is something many of these stories do share. Baoshu’s “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” plays recent Chinese history backwards, starting with the financial crash and the repercussions of 9/11 and moving through Tiananmen Square, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, to make the argument that there is nothing inevitable about the progress of history. Meanwhile, in Zhang Ran’s “The Snow of Jinyang” a time traveller becomes stranded in tenth-century Jinyang. To power up his time machine again, he sets about causing an anachronism: making it snow in the height of summer. Then there’s Xia Jia’s “Goodnight Melancholy”, which weaves fictional scenes from the life of Alan Turing into a story about how AI and AI-like technology could help treat and relieve depression. In their own ways, “Moonlight”, Gu Shi’s “Reflection”, Ma Boyong’s “The Emperor’s Games” and Hao Jingfang’s “The New Year Train” are all also playing with conceptions of time and history.

This interest in history reminds me of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, in which the tracing-back of a family tree, the recounting of personal history, becomes a sort of fragile ward against the violence and political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution and the decades that followed. Like Thien, the authors featured in Broken Stars are reconstructing time and history in order to control them, to make sense out of them, to break out of the prisons they create.

This work has particular resonance with the fraught history of science fiction in China, which was essentially banned until the 1980s (despite the august provenance of speculative tales in traditional Chinese literature). The scene is still small, albeit expanding, as the existence of this anthology demonstrates. Its very existence is highly politicised; that the three essays in Broken Stars which describe the state of Chinese SF are placed at the back of the book means the stories retrospectively take on a political weight which some of them would not perhaps bear on their own. Nevertheless, I found this a useful, broad introduction to Chinese SFF, suggesting some thematic approaches that I look forward to thinking through more.

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