Broken Stars – Wholeheartedly Good

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
-Alex

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Unbound Worlds: A Long Time Ago – Boundless Love for Star Wars

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Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

Hi Folks!

With the 40th Anniversary of the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, Penguin Random House has released a Star Wars short story collection titled From A Certain Point of View. To coincide with this, Unbound Worlds has published stories from a group of authors, who are all Star Wars fans, about how they came to love the Star Wars universe in a piece titled A Long Time Ago. Last time we mentioned Unbound Worlds it was to give you an extra resource to find new books in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy sub genres thanks to one of their well-crafted lists. A Long Time Ago is just as good, with some wonderfully written and thoughtful pieces by a variety of great authors.

One of the reasons Star Wars has been and continues to be such a huge franchise is that it appeals to people for countless reasons, and this collection of stories gives you an eloquent view into the way it has influenced a bunch of authors’ lives. There are pieces on an inspiring love of the entire series, the pull of Dark Side, the strong heroines throughout the Star Wars movies, the inclusivity present in the galaxy far, far, away, and more.

The reason I absolutely loved reading all the stories in A Long Time Ago was how relatable so many of the stories were. These are people who fell in love with Star Wars just like I did, and whose love still runs deep to this day. These are the people that would nod knowingly when I explained how I sat in awe when I watched the 1995 THX remastered trilogy with my family one weekend, and how I proceeded to re-watch one movie after school every day when I came home for about a year. These are fans who get goosebumps when they hear the first crescendo of the main title, just like me.

The other reason I enjoyed reading through this collection of short stories is that, as long as you have a strong love for any particular franchise, you can relate to the way these authors feel about Star Wars. One of my favorite things to do is ask people to tell me about what their favorite series is and why. It is always a fun experience to hear what aspects of a series appealed most to people, and I think it helps me get to know who a person is. A Long Time Ago is basically textual nectar for me since all the stories coincide with my own love, but even if Star Wars is not your cup of tea (or blue milk), I think reading about the parts of the Star Wars Universe that spoke to these authors will help you get to know them better and give you a better appreciation of its influence on their storytelling.

If you have some free time, go check out some of these short stories! Max Gladstone(author of the Craft Sequence) and Peter Clines(author of the Ex-Heroes series) were some of my favorites. What were yours?

-Sean

Arcanum Unbounded – A Different Game

91dtll3xxtlI don’t talk a lot about Brandon Sanderson for two reasons. One, most people already know and read him. He is an extremely successful author, for good reason, and people don’t need me to help discover him. Two, I really, really like his work and I do my best not to review books I know I am going to unconstructively gush about. However, recently Sanderson has released a new book, Arcanum Unbounded, which I really enjoyed – but works as a great case study in why Sanderson is one of my all time favorite authors: he is simply playing an entirely different game than anyone else out there.

What do I mean when I say he is playing a different game? To put it better, I think Sanderson has one of the most impressive writing styles I’ve seen. He sets different goals from many other traditional fantasy writers and has built a relationship with his readers beyond what other authors have achieved. See while most writers are focused on creating a successful book that people want to read, Sanderson’s focus is on telling stories- and while the difference might seem like pretentious pedantic line drawing to you, it makes a very big difference to me. Of course, Sanderson wants to have successful books as well, I am not trying to deify him as an altruistic writing god – but when you listen to how Brandon talks about making his stories you can tell that he just wants to bring you into his a world/universe. He is one of the most prolific writers on the scene today, consistently publishing 1-3 books a year (often giant in size). When I once asked him why/how he writes so much, he told me something that has stuck with me to this day: I have a lot of stories to tell you, a lot of worlds I want to show you. If I don’t keep churning them out and putting them on paper, I am going to die before I have a chance to take you to them all.

So what does this all have to do with Arcanum Unbounded? Well if you do not know, and it’s totally fine if you don’t, a large portion of Sanderson’s books all take place in the same universe. While all his stories are almost completely independent, he has had some minor crossovers throughout his books – for example a planet hopper who shows up in every book to give sage advice to protagonists. Sanderson has always stated that he wants his series to both have an independent identity (which he has succeeded at) and to eventually come together into a larger picture. Arcanum Unbounded is his first major step toward unifying all of his worlds and series. Arcanum is a collection of short stories both from worlds that Sanderson has already written about and those he plans to explore in the future. When I went into the book I was expecting some short pieces that were fun and well written and starting to give us a glance at Sanderson’s long term plan. This is exactly what I got, but the stories and the plan blew my expectations out of the water.

While the entire collection is characteristically great, The Emperor’s Soul is the standout story (and it won a Hugo for best short story). The collection is more beautiful and detailed than I expected. Sanderson’s plan and universe is bigger and better than I imagined. .He stretches my imagination further than he has before, employing art and a level of detail I didn’t think was possible in a book. Like a literary Matryoshka doll, there were layers upon layers of storytelling on both a micro and macroscopic level. As with everything he does, the scope that Arcanum reveals is astounding and if there is any writer I trust to deliver on big promises it is Brandon.

Normally when I read a book, I spend a lot of time making notes and recording my feelings and thoughts so I can write detailed and informed reviews after. While reading this book I had the rare experience of just being awestruck and losing myself in its pages. The first bits of Sanderson’s master plan defied my imagination and filled me with the kind of excitement you get from something you have never seen before or an idea you never considered. In one of the short stories in the collection, one character asks another if they are sure they want answers to the questions they ask – because once you get the answers, you will understand how small your current problems are and how big the universe’s problems can be. I agree with this statement completely, and due to it I do not recommend Arcanum until you have at a minimum read his Stormlight series, Mistborn series, Elantris, and Warbreaker. They are all amazing stories in their own right, so it won’t be so bad I promise. Once you do, I whole heartedly recommend you pick up this beautiful collection and start to find out what Sanderson has in store for us. The Arcanum Unbounded is designed as a piece for Sanderson readers who have read his greater catalogue and want to look behind the curtain in OZ; except instead of finding a frail old man at the controls, we truly find a wizard.

Rating: Arcanum Unbounded – 10/10