Wherever You Go, There You Are: Finding and Losing Oneself in “Invisible Planets”

By Virginia L. ConnJuly 20, 2019

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Finding and Losing Oneself in “Invisible Planets”

Invisible Planets by Ken Liu

IN ITALO CALVINO’S 1972 Invisible Cities, the reader is introduced to 55 allegorical cities — the sprawling, eternal ambiguity of Penthesilea, the temporal succession of Berenice, the desiring, dreaming trap of Zobeide — each unveiling aspects of a fundamentally unknowable world rendered all the more strange by occasional flashes of revelation. The worlds upon worlds in these pages offer glimpses of other lives that could be our lives, other homes that could be our homes, other truths that could be our truths. But the enduring beauty of these 55 cities is that none of them fully represent the reality of the world as is, and their power lies in exactly that momentary glimpse into something liminal and vanishing. This tantalizing literary guide has led across the years to another place of unknowns, a universe inexpressible in any translation — the literary constellation of Invisible Planets.

Just as, when pressed, Calvino’s Marco Polo claims that “[e]very time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice,” every story in Invisible Planets is saying something about the author’s own position — but that may or may not be the China we know (or think we know). Invisible Planets is not only the spiritual successor to Calvino’s Invisible Cities: it evinces the same magic without following the same formula, creating a panoply of possible worlds that may or may not be our worlds, and which may or may not be true.

As with Ning Ken’s more contemporary concept of chaohuan — the “ultra-unreal” of the modern Chinese landscape, in which hallucinatory reality outstrips the literary imagination’s ability to conceive of itself — the “China” ostensibly represented in these stories is an illusion in the process of being built, a futur antérieur nostalgia for an ideal that never materialized, a technoscientific mythology that rewrites what we think we already know. The “we,” here, is no accident — this collection is geared toward a very specific audience of Western readers with no experience reading Chinese SF (in translation or otherwise), readers who come to the text unsure of what to expect and who are subsequently confronted with, cajoled, and reminded over and over again that any monolithic Orientalist symbol they may have previously constructed of the country’s national literature is insufficient in the face of such infinitely diverse combinations. It is, in short, a manifesto in the guise of a short story collection, and its aim is to remind us — this “us” a symbol just as surely as is “China” — that we know nothing. It is in this opening up of one’s self to the possibility of ignorance that the collection shines.

In doing so, Invisible Planets problematizes the idea of what it means to represent China at all. The indomitable Ken Liu — it would be no understatement to say that he is likely single-handedly responsible for the ongoing boom in popularity of translated Chinese SF in the West — notes repeatedly that the collection doesn’t aim at comprehensiveness, but is, rather, a collection of stories he himself has translated in the past. At the same time, however, he intends for it to be an introduction for Anglophone readers, whose only other introductions to Chinese SF collected in translation would likely have been the 1989 Science Fiction from China (edited by Wu Dingbo and Patrick D. Murphey) or the Hong Kong–based literary publication Renditions, which in 2012 published a special issue on Chinese SF. In this, he does an excellent job of contextualizing and noting that not all Chinese SF is the same, and, additionally, that to read it through a Western lens is dangerous chauvinism that runs the risk of seeing only what one wants to see.

This risk is pervasive throughout the text, an omnipresent specter that haunts and shapes possible avenues of interpretation. This is perhaps most obvious in Ma Boyong’s “City of Silence” (more on that later), which draws explicitly from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to craft a story easily interpreted by Western readers as a tale of censorship and state control: well-worn narratives of the “truth” of Chinese society that Ken Liu repeats, over and over again, are too simple, too easy, too static. Sufficiently reminded of this, we find ourselves wandering through a new Penthesilea in which the text’s borders are indistinguishable from reality, the literary suburbs melting into an ever-shifting center. Convinced that nothing we think we know is reliable, the collection is able to become truly strange, separate not only in time or place but also through the estrangement of what time and place mean at all.

While insisting on the indefinability of Chinese SF as a discrete concept or nationally bounded genre, the collection opens with an author whose work is firmly grounded in the material realities of modern-day China — and specifically, the burgeoning cyborgian metropole of Shenzhen. Chen Qiufan, whose 2013 novel Waste Tide was just released in English in April 2019, is the most up-and-coming of the “new generation” of Chinese SF authors, publishing not only short stories but novels, so it’s a canny move to open with his work. Chen’s literary vision has been associated with the animating ethos of cyberpunk, and it’s easy to see why — from the psychotropic commodification of time under technocratic megacorporations, to the gritty identification of state coercion as a dehumanizing force, to the sultry dame who appears to need rescuing by a hard-bitten, hopeless protagonist, Chen’s derisive view of consumerist excesses and lavish descriptions of systematic wreckage (sometimes literal, sometimes only of human hearts) is a heady callback to the energy cyberpunk could, at its best, conjure up.

Yet this Sinofuturistic noir is rooted firmly in Chinese-specific historical experiences, such as in “The Year of the Rat,” which hearkens back to the four pests campaign, or in “The Fish of Lijiang,” in which a robot shill, describing the reasons for the purity of the blue sky in Lijiang, recalls the scandal over the air quality at the Beijing Olympics: the sky’s brilliant “APEC blue” is achieved through not allowing local drivers on the road. This is a story about time and our relationship to it, how nostalgia presses on the future even as that future comes and passes too fast to comprehend, resulting in the capitalist impulse to frame time as just another commodity to be controlled. For its part, “The Flower of Shazui” — set in the same universe as that of Chen’s recently released Waste Tide — truly exemplifies the ultra-unreality of a literature struggling to keep up with developments in even one small geopolitical corner of the map.

Following Chen is Xia, a movement from cynical consumerism to misty nostalgia. Xia Jia is the first person to receive a PhD specializing in SF in China, and her academic training and familiarity with the genre are evident in both her self-presentation (describing her own style as “porridge SF” neatly sidesteps many of the ongoing dialectical debates so prevalent — still! — in the genre: hard versus soft, the fantastic versus the technical, and many more besides that are more common in Chinese literature but perhaps not so familiar to Anglophone readers, including distinctions between “strange stories,” tales of the supernatural, wuxia epics, et cetera). This author’s section is also notable for including the only story appearing for the very first time in English (as opposed to a reprint), “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse.” Just as with “A Thousand Ghosts Parade Tonight” and “Tong Tong’s Summer,” Xia Jia’s prose is elegant, lyrical, and effortlessly cognizant of the comparative globalizing threads that would make such worlds as she proposes possible (for example, the mechanical spider that is the dancing partner of the dragon-horse, both born in France, brings Louise Bourgeois’s massive “Maman” to mind).

The soft-edged, lovingly tender nostalgia and fantasy of Xia paves the way for readers to have that experience turned back against them and weaponized, words and memories posing dangerous obstacles — both for the reader and the characters in Ma Boyong’s work. As Ken Liu points out in his introduction, the text is not typical of his usual oeuvre and almost impossible to resist reading as a satire of contemporary Chinese censorship laws and/or a reworking of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps what is difficult about “The City of Silence” is that it does present itself as so immediately legible to a Western audience both familiar with Orwell’s doublespeak and believing itself familiar with China’s censorship situation; as a result, it is all too easy to read in a manner the translator insists it not be.

On the other hand, Hao Jingfang’s work is allowed to speak for itself, leading to what is, in my opinion, the highlight of the texts collected here. Hao is probably best known for “Folding Beijing,” which — following the success of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem — was probably the biggest breakout Chinese SF text in recent translation. While “Folding Beijing” (a story of various possibilities for love even among social and economic despair) is included here, it is preceded by the story from which the collection takes its name. “Invisible Planets” thus serves as a beautiful method of meta-contextualizing the anthology as a whole — a Calvinoesque recounting of impossible places, people, and civilizations. Melancholy, absurd, insightful, almost unimaginably creative, “Invisible Planets” truly comments on the collection as a whole.

Primed to reinterpret everything that has come before and recontextualize the stories that follow, readers will find that Tang Fei’s “Call Girl” provides surprise after surprise — it begins with the intimation of sex, is suddenly full of puppies, and ends with a yawning, infinite existentialist comment on the nature of companionship and stories. Cheng Jingbo, for her part, presents a dark, labyrinthine homage to mother-daughter relationships and the different needs of relationships told allegorically through interdimensional immigration and mythological storytelling.

The fictional part of the collection ends with the best known of the authorial voices coming out of China: Liu Cixin, known within China as one of the “three generals” of SF (the other two, not included here, being Wang Jinkang and Han Song). Liu’s success on the international market, with the publication of The Three-Body Problem, also translated by Ken Liu, in many ways paved the way for the success of a publication such as Invisible Planets. The first story, “The Circle,” is an adaptation of a chapter from The Three-Body Problem, but the second, “Taking Care of God,” showcases what some have interpreted as Liu’s cynicism toward humanity — an isolated, fragmentary spark in a cold universe, a lonely voice unheeded by the grander, colder laws governing the passage of time. Liu’s fundamentally conservative view is that only suffering and competition generate creativity and evolution; the ease that arises out of a certain level of technological and social development is equivalent to complete stagnation. Humans are given the opportunity to understand this lesson, but it remains ambiguous as to whether they’re up to the task.

Invisible Planets ends, however, with a set of three remarkably optimistic nonfiction essays about the nature of Chinese SF. In addition to Ken Liu’s opening remarks, they comment on SF as a field within Chinese literature, particularly noting its possibilities for merging technoscientific progress with the best of human empathy and creativity. These intersections are what make Invisible Planets work — because the stories and essays contained within are new while also inviting us to interrogate to whom they are new. I suspect that the worlds presented by each of the authors in this collection would be mutually strange to each of the other contributors. There is no cohesive, collective world, no overarching vision of “China” under which everything comes together. Rather, the planets each wink into our literary awareness and wink out again just as quickly, leaving us with momentary insight into an ultra-unreality both more familiar and infinitely stranger than we ever could have imagined.


Virginia L. Conn is a comparative literature PhD candidate at Rutgers University.

LARB Contributor

Virginia L. Conn is a lecturer at Stevens Institute of Technology. She researches depictions of the “new socialist human” in socialist science fiction and how those depictions guided policy decisions in Mao-era China, Soviet Russia, and East Germany.


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