Following on the heels of my recent review of a Japanese science-fiction short story collection, I decided to stay in the same part of the world for my next read. That ended up being Broken Stars, a collection of contemporary Chinese science-fiction.
I need to admit that I felt Broken Stars was a stronger collection than the Japanese one, but there are two good reasons for this. First, the Japanese stories were older and spanned the 1960s through the early 1990s. The Chinese collection is contemporary, so they tended to have a modern feel to them. Second, the Japanese collection felt more playful, a little more tongue-in-cheek. The stories in Broken Stars were mature, more somber, and were more about the human condition.
The stories ranged from straight science fiction to speculative, and I enjoyed just about every one of them. There were a few – two, to be exact – that I had a hard time getting through. I attribute that to my lack of knowledge of Chinese culture and history.
One of the things mentioned in the introduction is that it helps to understand China and Chinese history a bit to fully understand some of the subtleties. Luckily, many of the stories have footnotes to provide context or background on the more obscure references. But still, there were times when I felt I was missing a puzzle piece.
I enjoyed the brief biographies of each writer. Because of the – how can I put it mildly? – authoritarian censorship of the government, some of the writers had to skirt around direct political statements. This is explained in some of the biographies. Even then, I was surprised at how subtle, yet direct, the political references were in several instances.
It was apparent in my favorite story in the collection, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” by Baoshu (the pen name of Li Jun). Not to give too much away, but this was an amazing piece of storytelling. The story follows the life of a young man, beginning in childhood, and follows him as he grows up in China.
What I found so intriguing is that, as the narrative moves forward, history moves backward. So, for example, when he is a child the world has cellphones, iPads, internet, and all the modern electronics. But as time passes, these things go away and the world is reduced to using newspapers and letters to pass information. Another example is how the Chinese government begins in its current state, but then reverts through the Cultural Revolution and towards having an emperor.
The backwards history is global and is an interesting backdrop to this man’s life. He makes reference to events and changes, but he is also caught up in some of it. It affects his life, his relationships, and ultimately, the love of his life. It’s a beautiful story and one that has stuck with me for weeks after reading it.
This is definitely a short story collection you should add to your reading list. Not only is it a selection of (mostly) fantastic stories, but it’s an interesting glimpse into Chinese culture and worldviews.