Chinese Dystopian Sci-Fi, anyone?

invisible planets

I’ve been working my way through an anthology this week – “Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation”  (edited and translated by Ken Liu -pictured below holding his most renowned translating effort). I don’t recall now where I first heard of this book – maybe via – but I first encountered Liu in his short story, “What I Assume You Shall Assume” from – of all places – an anthology of ‘Weird Western’ tales called “Dead Man’s Hand.”


Later, we crossed paths again when he made an appearance in 2014’s “Deal Me In” challenge, as the story “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” was read by James of the blog,“James Reads Books.” Then his crowning achievement to me thus far was his “epic” translation of the first book of Cixin Liu’s acclaimed “The Three-Body Problem” – the first book read by my reincarnated book club a.k.a. “Book Club II: Son of Book Club.” (“Re-hydrate!” sorry, inside joke for The Three-Body Problem readers…)


Soooo… when I heard of this anthology, I promptly purchased it and have been anxious to get started in on it. So far it has not disappointed. I’m now halfway through, having read 7 of its 14 stories. A couple of the stories were really outstanding, Chen Quifan’s “The Fish of Lijiang” and Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”. These and other stories in the book have frequently called to mind other favorite stories of mine, of such varying pedigree as Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince,” and Premendra Mitra’s “The Discovery of Telenapota”

But the one I’m going to talk about briefly in this post is..

“The City of Silence” by Ma Boyong

“It’s understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all the unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”

The story paints one of the bleakest dystopias I’ve encountered, and it is clear that the author is well versed in Dystopian Classics of the West as well, with nods to both Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 appearing in this near-novella length story. In the society described in The City of Silence, most “living” (if you can call it that) is done via “The Web”  – “The Capital’s streets had few pedestrians. Now that the Web was everywhere, most chores could be done there. Unlike in the primitive past, people no longer needed to go outside the home for the necessities of daily life.” Communication is slowly being constricted as well. Citizens are constantly monitored by The State and must adhere to and use only words from a continually updated list of “healthy words.” The insidiousness of gradualism is on display in how the communication and language are inexorably taken away from the citizens. I found the descriptions of the stages by which language was slowly becoming a lost art, and how the citizenry would retreat to a new strategy, only to see it also eradicated, fascinating.

As you can see by the quotation above, physical books have become extinct and most haven’t heard of even the famous Orwell Classic: “Do you know 1984?” asks one, “I only know that ‘1984’ is part of my Web Access Serial “(i.e. his name) The story’s protagonist, “ARVARDAN19842015BNKF,” eventually discovers a secretive group of non-conformists, who clandestinely run a speakeasy-like support group called “The Talking Club”- No forbidden words there! They even have ‘shielding’ which prevents the government’s (or I should say “The Appropriate Authorities” which is the “Big Brother” of this story) surveillance of their activity, but for how long..?

The story’s nod to Fahrenheit 451 lies in the fact that one of the members of “The Talking Club” read 1984 once, when copies were still available, and entertains the group by retelling the story – from memory – in “installments” to her fellow members, one of whom notes that “The author of 1984 predicted the progress of totalitarianism, but could not predict the progress of technology.” She’s like one of the “living books” of Fahrenheit 451!

If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, you will definitely want to give this story a try. I don’t know if it’s available individually (I didn’t see it during a quick off-the-cuff search) but the anthology is available on  I am looking forward to finishing off the other stories in this book over the upcoming long Thanksgiving Weekend.

Below: Ma Boyong


Have you read any Chinese Science Fiction? Maybe The Three-Body Problem? Are you familiar with Ken Liu’s work?