Monday, April 3, 2017

Invisible Planets Book Review

by The Wanderer

Editor and Translation: Ken Liu
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 384

Invisible Planets is a compilation of thirteen newer science fiction stories from China. In our review each short story is given a brief synopsis, analysis, and score.  The final score you see at the top of the review is an aggregate of all thirteen short stories and/or novellas.

Total Average Score: 7.2

The Year of the Rat by Chen Quifan

Synopsis: Recent college graduates with no job upon graduation are recruited to fight super intelligent rats.

Starting in the direction of a personal "what am I going to do now that I've graduated with an arts degree" crisis, the plot quickly takes a sharp turn towards the supernatural. The rats are rats, true, but they are intelligent, and even have a few scenes that deliver some empathy. A lot of questions arise making this a thoughtful, and just as much an action adventure type story.

Score: 8.9

The Fish of Lijang by Chen Quifan

Synopsis: An overworked office worker is sent to rehabilitation where he meets a strange woman.

What starts out as a journey of self reflection ends with some more self reflection. Idea wise this journey of self reflection starts in one direction and completely ends somewhere else. The romance is just the right vehicle to get there.

Score: 8.2

The Flower of Shazui by Chen Quifan

Synopsis: A man with a criminal background has found a new place to pay rent that will house him. A prostitute he meets there soon finds him envisioning another scheme.

Our criminal main character's past is pretty entertaining ... and dark. The prostitute he wishes to help makes a lot of questionable decisions. Like Quifan's previous two stories this one starts in one direction and ends somewhere else.

Score: 8.0

A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight by Xia Jia

Synopsis: A young boy is sent to live with a couple of ghosts.

A visceral and visual story, Xia Jia's young boy elicits some sympathy but not enough to really make this character very memorable. The plot is predictable and the ending just didn't have the impact I wished it could have had. Visually the descriptions, and creatively the ideas are all sound though.

Score: 6.8

Tongtong's Summer by Xia Jia

Synopsis: Tongtong is a young girl who along with her family takes in her aging grandfather. A robot named Ah fu is brought into help, and Tongtong soon learns how special her grandfather is.

What a fantastic and emotionally rewarding story about the developing relationship between Tongtong, her grandfather, and the robot Ah fu. I don't think I've encountered a story that's treated the aging process with as much optimism since I saw Up. I think Xia Jia puts its significance best in the afterward:
"... living with an awareness of the closeness of death is nothing to be afraid of."
Score: 9.3

Night Journey of the Dragon Horse by Xia Jia

Synopsis: A giant mechanical dragon wanders a desolate Earth after no humans remain on it.

A slow moving plot with a lot of well written and surreal descriptions about what remains of Earth. The only other character, a talking bat, adds some spice, but like A Hundred Ghosts Parade didn't move me as much as I thought it could have.

Score: 7.2

The City of Silence by Ma Boyong

Synopsis: Trapped in a highly censored society, a man looks for a way to escape the repression.

This dystopian future has a degree of plausibility that is truly frightening. Channeling, and even paying tribute to 1984, The City of Silence puts forth a more modernized horror than what Orwell created.

Score: 8.8

Invisible Planets by Hao Jingfang

Synopsis: A storyteller recounts all the planets he's traveled to as well as their inhabitants.

It's almost like reading a travel book about a random set of planets and the various different cultures that live there. The format is too short for any of the places to really make any impact. Although the conclusion to the story, which explains why you're listening to all these expositions makes a fair point, it's one that really doesn't have the impact that it could, again due to the use of short story.

Score: 5.5

Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang

Synopsis: In Beijing's future, the city is a rotating cube that's separated by class. One man is sent on a excursion from the lowest space to the highest to deliver an important message.

I think the layers of Beijing's physical layout kind of resembles the concept of Inception but has the mechanics of the city from Dark City. Either way, the worldbuilding is brilliant, and the separation of the city's three spaces by economic classes bares an eerie resemblance to a lot of our own communities. This is visually the most impressive story of the bunch.

Score: 9.3

Call Girl by Tang Fei

Synopsis: A call girl in high school takes on her latest job.

With a controversial setup, it will inevitably turn out that this call girl isn't necessarily offering sex. Definitely a strange twist and accompanying circumstances, but still enjoyable.

Score: 8.0

Grave of the Fireflies by Cheng Jingbo

Synopsis: As stars are dying, Rosamund prepares to leave her home planet, while also exploring her mother's mysterious past.

With a queen and almost fairytale like aesthetic, Grave of the Fireflies more closely resembles a fantasy as opposed to a sci-fi story. Note this is not the Japanese story that was turned into the Studio Ghibli masterpiece of the same name. I had a lack of connection with Jingbo's characters, and the twist didn't have any emotional impact on me. It felt convenient rather than organic.

Score: 5.2

The Circle by Liu Cixin

Synopsis: An assassin who plots to assassinate the Chinese emperor instead begins to work with him to uncover the secret of eternal life.

If you've read Cixin's Three Body Problem then this story should look familiar. It's essentially the computer programming scene with all the soldiers and flags. For those who haven't read Three Body Problem, if you enjoy this story, then that book is highly recommended. 

Score: 9.3

Taking Care of God by Liu Cixin 

Synopsis: When a fleet of alien spacecraft descend upon Earth, all of the incoming aliens claim to be God and ask that the people of Earth take care of them.

Plot wise this might be the strangest story of the lot. The burden that all of the God's place on humanity along with their advanced technology, and knowledge of what else is out there makes for an interesting read. Character wise there isn't a whole lot of development, and I don't get too attached to any particular person, but conceptually you're left with a lot to think about.

Score: 8.0

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