I recently decided to treat myself by purchasing Broken Stars, a collection of contemporary Chinese speculative fiction curated and translated by Ken Liu. The collection had been showing up a lot on my Amazon queue, and while I was out at the store I decided “why not?” I had never really read a collection of non-horror short stories that weren’t by the same author. I was not originally planning on writing about Broken Stars, but the more stories I read, the more magnetic the book became, and I would feel ashamed if I did not use my platform to evangelize about the magic of this collection. Featuring sixteen stories from fourteen authors, Broken Stars is an incredible feast of Chinese science fiction.
First off, the collection feels incredibly personal. Ken Liu does a fantastic job of introducing the authors, their perspectives, backgrounds, and interests prior to each story. Sometimes he would even provide a framing of how the story can be read and enjoyed, especially when some of the cultural context may be lost on Western readers. It was very helpful, especially since most of my education on Chinese history ended in high school. It felt like he held out his hand to the reader and took you on your very own personal journey into the stories he loves. His introductions made the whole experience very welcoming, and dissipated a lot of the anxiety I had about “not getting it.” On top of all that I think Liu did an excellent job of ordering the stories as well. He slowly dug deeper and deeper into Chinese history with each successive story, occasionally breaking up the intensity with something lighter. I never felt confused by what was happening, as some of the more Chinese stories had annotations to clue the reader in.
The hardest part about this review is actually talking about the stories in the book. They all felt incredibly special in some way, making it tough to choose which to highlight here. Liu himself even mentions in the foreword that he did not try to make a “best-of” compilation, opting instead for more variety. He certainly succeeds, as each story had its own personality, exploring different modes of storytelling, covering a plethora of science fiction staples, and exploring ideas I had never really considered reading before. Particularly of interest to me were the stories that dealt with time and the individual’s place within society. I’ll talk about three of the stories here to jump-start interest.
First off is Moonlight by Liu Cixin, of The Three Body Problem fame. It’s one of the shorter stories, but Liu Cixin makes it work overtime. It follows a man who feels he can contribute nothing to the world, as he receives phone calls from himself in the future. Each version of himself calls him to warn of the future and sends the present version detailed plans on how to solve the crisis. However, each time he thinks about sending out the plans to get to work, the future changes, prompting another future version of himself to call to explain the new problem. It’s a fun and somewhat daunting story that shows the power of the individual to help change society, for better or worse. The ending is harrowing but conveys the message perfectly.
Possibly my favorite story is What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Baoshu. It follows Xie Baosheng, a boy born in 2012, or as the first paragraph ends “I was born on the day the world was supposed to end,” as he grows up and experiences our past as his future. Meaning when he turns one, it’s 2011, when he turns four, it’s 2008 and so on and so forth. On its own, watching events unfold in reverse order is powerful enough the idea is powerful enough, watching the events happen again in reverse order. Major events in world and modern Chinese history still occur with new context as they are played backwards. However, Baoshu is not content with just replaying the second half of the twentieth century. The story itself is incredibly human, showcasing how easy it is for one’s life to get swept up in the passage of time. Major life events are competing with the ever-changing state of the world on equal footing. As Baosheng gets older, his decisions are met with more and more inertia from his earlier life and the new expectations of society. It is one of the longer stories, but honestly, buying the book for just this story would have been worth it.
Lastly, on the funnier side is The First Emperor’s Games by Ma Bodong. Following the First Emperor’s unification of China, the emperor becomes an avid computer game player. Once you accept the absurd premise that an emperor from 221 BC is playing video games, the story flows in an entertaining fashion. Liu mentions that this particular story might require some extensive use of Wikipedia to understand the more Chinese aspects of the humor, I still found it quite entertaining on my first run without the extra knowledge. It follows the Emperor as his myriad of advisors suggests different popular computer games to pass his time such as Civilization or The Sims. It’s a fun read that gets deeper the more you understand about ancient Chinese history and philosophy, so definitely take a few passes at it as you learn more from the internet.
There are a few stories that stand out to me in particular, but ultimately the whole collection is enjoyable. It’s refreshing to have read such a wide variety of stories from an incredible spectrum of voices. I’m glad I decided to step outside of my literary comfort zone to enjoy this collection, and it certainly has spurred me to look for more translated fiction. I do not feel comfortable giving a score to collection as a whole, or even to the individual stories. What I will say is that the work Ken Liu put into creating this collection, and translating it to English clearly shows. And if you’re looking for something different, but with a tang of familiarity, I highly recommend Broken Stars.
Rating: Broken Stars – Enjoyable, Deep, and Worth Your Time/10