INVISIBLE PLANETS – Ken Liu, editor and translator

Having read Ken Liu’s PAPER MENAGERIE, a collection of his short stories, plus his bio and credits, I felt I’d had the good fortune to ‘stumble’ upon an excellent writer and translator whose work gave me a new perspective on speculative and ‘science’ fiction. So, I eagerly read his collection of Chinese scifi short stories he translated and compiled in the anthology INVISIBLE PLANETS. The included works vary in context, level of optimism/despair, characters, plots [of course], and themes, but they all expose the frailty of our species–self-absorption, self-destructive tendencies, depression, and greed. The tales’ settings may be “out there,” sometimes in actuality, but the dynamic between characters and their responses to situations are eerily familiar to many cultures. In that respect, each author’s work reflects personal concerns and experiences acquired through his or her Chinese heritage, but the writers’ genius lies in the way their works transcend personal idiom to find resonance in the lives of people from other cultures.

In the anthology’s eponymous story by brilliant Hao Jingfang, the narrator describes far-out (literally and also in the Hippie sense) planets he/she has visited. In the course of relating about the inhabitants and peculiarities of a planet revolving around a double star and having a hyperbolic paraboloid orbit, the narrator points out that one part of the planet’s population is convinced of the other part’s inferiority and vice-versa. (p.209) “And so the two intelligent species of Aihuowu experience the same process of learning, working, love, and war. Their histories play out on two time scales [1:100] each echoing the other. But they remain opaque to each other, unaware that when it comes to time, everyone is only measuring the universe using the ruler of their own lifespan.” Profound.

Ken Liu asks the reader to engage with these works by transcending particularity. He says (p. 16, the Introduction): “Imagining that the political concerns of Chinese writers are the same as what the Western reader would like them to be is at best arrogant and at worst dangerous. Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all of humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their works through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.”

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