Book Reviews

Invisible Planets

Further Reflections

Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, CiXin Liu, ed. New York: Tor Books, 2016. $24.99/ £8.99.

Reviewed by Carrie Anne Hudson

Why review a science fiction (SF) book in a journal about contextualization? Contextualization is partnered with worldview. The stories in Invisible Planets uncover the dreams and realities of the Chinese that are not often expressed in everyday life. We need to listen as the authors present Chinese worldviews through science fiction.

China has had a love/hate relationship with SF—breaking up and getting back together again. The tenuous relationship stems from Chinese scholars not wanting SF to overshadow real science. For years, Chinese SF readers devoured translated works by Jules Vern and Isaac Asimov. These guys were dreamers. SF inspired fantasies of modernization and globalization. So, “In 1983, the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns wiped SF from the map again.”[1] Today, with China’s rapid modernization and globalization, writers have taken ownership over their dreams, expressing them in the genre of Chinese SF.

Invisible Planets is a collection of short SF stories from various authors. The themes and purposes of each story are as vast as the Chinese population. Summarizing such an array of writers is not possible here. However, this anthology contains various moods, tones, and reflections that are important for Western readers to understand.

The authors, either consciously or unconsciously, include within their stories numerous elements and themes that reflect a contemporary worldview. Weaving together Chinese ghost tales, technology, community, globalization, and modernization, Chinese SF has taken its own form. As I read Invisible Planets, several prominent themes emerged.

1. Parent/Child Relationship

Multiple stories highlight the relationship between parent and child. In “Flowers of Shazhui,” we are tortured alongside a desperate father who threatens his employer with self-immolation in exchange for a pay-off of his daughter’s school tuition. In “Folding Beijing,” a man faces the danger of traveling to First Space, risking his life to earn the money needed to send his daughter to school. A woman in “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight” sells off her body piece by piece to save her ailing children.

Great sacrifice for one’s children is the power that drives many of these stories. This is a basic obligation a parent feels towards his or her child. This is how parents expresses their love and keep the familial bonds tightly in place.

2. Societal Revolution

In many stories, one way or another, characters are caught in a difficult situation. They are trapped behind the constraints of technology or censorship; they look for a placebo to help them through the pain of each day. Whether it’s the companionship of a robot named An Fu in “Tong Tong’s Summer” or the secret talking meetings orchestrated in “The City of Silence,” people look for peace amidst oppression.

As a Westerner, I found myself telling the characters, “Rise up! You don’t have to live like that!” But for Chinese readers, going off as a rogue individual to revolutionize society is undesirable folly. In “Stanley Chan,” a character quips, “If someone would just get a revolt started, I’m sure all of us together can whip him.” There’s the sense that, in a revolution, either the group joins, or nobody joins. Most Western literature and movies exalt the lone individual who breaks from the group. Additionally, in these Chinese short stories, the goal of revolution is to bring people together rather than tear them apart. Societal harmony remains a core value even in Chinese SF.

3. Connection with Nature

In Western SF, the setting is typically industrial, planetary, or cosmic. While there are trace elements of such settings in these Chinese stories, most of them take place on earth and in a society struggling to function in some capacity. Man-made technology is interwoven with the technology of creation. Readers never get a sense that the earth has abandoned its people; rather, it makes them remember their humanity. For example, in “Flower of Shazhui,” the setting is described as a bodily system, apartments with alleyways that snake like capillaries.

The authors have a cautious appreciation for technology. Each story seemingly regards technology as a necessary evil. From time to time, technology even longs for the breath of a human being instead of the hum of an invention. Modernization is desirable but not at the expense of community. Discussion about the role of empathy among technology consistently shapes various plotlines. “The Year of the Rat” leaves readers feeling the need to control technology because of its inability to show empathy. In one instance, a robot rat kills a group of adult rats trying to help one of their babies.

4. Inevitability of Time

One final theme is noteworthy–– the inevitability of time. In “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse,” “Fish of Lijiang,” “Tong Tong’s Summer,” and “Taking Care of God,” readers are reminded that the end of time is inevitable. While seemingly fatalistic, most of the stories leave us with the sense that immortality should help us appreciate the present.

Xia Jia aptly ends her essay “What makes Chinese science fiction Chinese?” with this:

At this critical moment, I am even firmer in my faith that reforming reality requires not only science and technology, but also the belief by all of us that life should be better—and can be made better—if we possess imagination, courage, initiative, unity, love, and hope as well as a bit of understanding and empathy for strangers. Each of us is born with these precious qualities, and it is perhaps also the best gift that science fiction can bring us (p. 383).

While we can benefit from reading books on contextualization, nothing replaces our reading Chinese works themselves. We need to experience the textures and contours of Chinese literature first hand. The fluidity with which these SF authors move between ancient and modern culture leaves the reader with a richer understanding of Chinese worldviews. It is tempting to see the stories in Invisible Planets as social commentary. I caution against painting current politics onto the canvas of these stories. While each story could be summarized with broad strokes of political rhetoric, we would miss the intricate cultural brushstrokes that make each story a masterpiece.


  1. ^ Regina Kanyu Wang, “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction.” Mithila Review 9. Online: Accessed 1 Dec 2017.
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Carrie Anne Hudson

Carrie Anne Hudson (pseudonym) has lived in East Asia for 13 years. She is the author of Redefining Home: Squatty Potties, Split Pants, and Other Things that Divide My World (Lucid Books, 2012). When procrastinating from things she should be doing, she shares her thoughts at Full Bio