Xueting Christine Ni (ed. and trans.), Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction. Solaris Books, 2021. Pp. 448. ISBN 978-1-78108-852-4. $14.99.
Reviewed by Cait Coker
The 2014 translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem by Ken Liu into English became an unexpected defining moment in the field; there is now only “before” and “after” when talking about Chinese science fiction in the Anglo world. It is significant, then, that in her introduction to Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, that editor Xueting Christine Ni describes her experience looking for science fiction books after walking into a Xinhua bookstore (China’s biggest bookseller chain). She is surprised by the lack of genre fiction aside from Wuxia (historical fiction concerned with martial artists)*, and when she asks for Kehuan (Chinese science fiction) the clerk gestures her towards the children’s section. When Xueting protests and asks if they are really shelving material like Liu there, the clerk responds with “Oh! Why didn’t you say so before?” and leads her where the material is shelved near science education textbooks. This preliminary scene explains the value placed on Kehuan in China: still at the margins of popular culture despite undergoing a remarkable renaissance both at home, and especially, abroad. Xueting’s purpose in editing this volume is to illustrate the wide range of Chinese science fiction, translating thirteen stories that were originally published between 1991 and 2021. This thirty year review, as it were, is not presented chronologically or thematically, but rather lets each work stand against one another for the reader to enjoy. Xueting also provides, after each story, notes that discuss the author as well as context for the story’s creation and contents. Xueting also makes a point of providing gender parity in these selections, with just over half of the authors being women. The overall result is an incredibly solid, thoughtful, and exciting anthology that is genuinely one of the best I’ve read in ages.
The story selections themselves run the gamut of hard science fiction. AI and space colonization figure heavily, but importantly, the focus always remains on the humanity of the characters. “The Great Migration” by Ma Boyong, for instance, imagines the biannual seasonal migration of workers from Mars back to Earth. Calculated to align with the close approaches of the two planets in their orbits in order to save fuel and travel time, the occasion becomes a festival as well as a lottery for people hoping to return to their families. Though situated in a futuristic space context, the emotional heart of the story is found in the thwarted efforts of two people trying, and failing, to get home. In real life, this scenario finds itself in the annual Lunar New Year celebrations, but as an American reader, I was struck by the similarities to seasonal migrant labor here in the US.
Zhao Hiyong’s “Rendezvous: 1937” is a multiperspective time travel story about resistance and survival in the Nanjing Massacre—an incredibly fraught subject in today’s China. It contains a coda by the author touching on the controversy of the subject in Japanese textbooks, and deploring the supposed lack of a “real” resistance from the Chinese occupants at the time. These are charged and messy statements. Originally published in 2006, reprinting and translating this story against current geopolitics is a charged choice. For instance, amid the ongoing cultural crackdown, the actor Zhang Zhehan has been newly criticized for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine (for Japanese war dead) in Tokyo several years ago. I have to wonder, then, at the placement of this story amid the other selections.
Finally, the story that struck me the most is “Starship: Library” by Jiang Bo. Told over epochs, this story is about the efforts of an immortal, Ehuang (who in mythology is a wise demigoddess), to both save and salvage the entirety of human knowledge. In the far distant future, Earth’s sun has gone to red giant stage and humanity has long since left the solar system; Ehuang and her library make up the last great ship to depart, despite an absence of visitors. Humans can now directly download knowledge, and so have no need to either read or learn–but Ehuang remains confident in her mission. The story checks in with her over millennia as she remains devoted to her mission despite the doubts of others. This is a story about the safeguarding of knowledge, unsure whether you will ever actually get to meet the one you’re saving it for, and is thus the perfect story for librarians like me.
Sinopticon would be an invaluable anthology when published at any time, but its arrival now makes it even more precious. Xueting’s introduction gets at the current difficulties in East-West relations, not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic which was occurring while this book was in process:
One value of science fiction lies in its ability to reflect and explore current preoccupations of the culture that generates it. … I hope readers will also find reflections of their own hopes and fears, and realise that the things the Chinese dream of and fear, are not a million miles away from what you yourself wish for, and hide from. (20)
Readers who have never encountered Chinese science fiction will find this book educational and illustrative; more familiar readers will find it incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking. The book is also inexpensive and would make an excellent choice for academics teaching science fiction; while reading I kept wanting to place the Chinese stories in dialogue with Anglo-American works. One can only hope for peace and stability between the great powers of our time, and this anthology amply demonstrates the intellectual exchanges that we should make more commonplace.
*Note: As an American reader, I fervently wish the translation of Wuxia novels into English would become more commonplace. For example, the classic novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Young, first published in 1957 and likened to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in terms of genre impact and popularity, was not translated into English until 2018.