Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Invisible Planets

invisible-planetsIn addition to writing some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the past few years (and I hear his novels are pretty good, too), Ken Liu has also been translating Chinese science fiction into English. His most visible work has been the translation of the first and third volumes of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, but he’s also been translating short stories — more than forty of them so far, according to his bibliography — that have been appearing in the online and print magazines. One of those translations, Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing,” won the Hugo Award for best novelette this year.

Thirteen of Ken’s1 translations, including Hao’s “Folding Beijing” and two stories by Liu Cixin, have now been gathered in Invisible Planets, out this week from Tor (in the U.S.) and Head of Zeus (in the U.K.). It’s a first-rate anthology for a couple of reasons. For one, Ken himself is an elegant writer, and his translations are no less elegant. For another, the process to arrive at these thirteen stories — Ken translating his favourite Chinese-language stories, then picking his favourites of those translations — makes for a selection process akin to a year’s-best or best-of anthology. In other words, we’re getting the cream of the cream of the crop.

At the same time, this is not necessarily a representative anthology — something that Ken warns against in his opening essay:

Any broad literary classification tied to a culture — especially a culture as in flux and contested as contemporary China’s — encompasses all the complexities and contradictions in that culture. Attempts to provide neat answers will only result in broad generalizations that are of little value, or stereotypes that reaffirm existing prejudices.

This is a collection of contemporary stories by up-and-coming writers (with the exception of Liu Cixin, already seen as the dean of Chinese sf). There is no attempt at comprehensiveness or canonicity, though the included essays from Ken and three of the Chinese writers do provide some of the history of Chinese sf. Invisible Planets is in the main about where Chinese sf is going, not where it’s been; it’s an introduction, not definitive.

Ken has also done two things that anthologists tend not to do. Most anthologies don’t have more than one story per author; he’s included three each from Chen Quifan and Xia Jia, and two each from Hao Jingfang and Liu Cixin. And he’s included longer stories. Many anthologies load up their table of contents with smaller stories (more bylines, better value); Ken’s eschewed this. Not only do the stories get more room to breathe, but we also get to see more than one side of each of Ken’s seven writers.

So what can be said about these stories in particular? Ken argues that these share “a sense of imbalance” reflecting the fact that China is a society in extremely rapid transition, split between poor villages and high-tech cities. That sense is most keenly apparent in a story like “Folding Beijing,” with its critique of class, poverty and privilege, or in Chen Quifan’s “Flower of Shazui” — the poor and traditional bump up against the rich and advanced. But it echoes in stories where the cost of that transition is scrutinized, as in Chen’s poingnant “Fish of Lijiang.”

I also think that these stories are engaged — socially aware, concerned with the impact of technological, political and environmental change. The uninitiated reader who assumes that Chinese literature must necessarily exist in a modern-day Biedermeier period will be startled to read something like Ma Boyong’s story, “The City of Silence,” a parable of censorship and repression that reads like Fahrenheit 451 for the digital age.

There is a recurring theme of loss and endings: we see it in stories that focus on old age and the end of life, even the end of human civilization (Xia Jia’s “Night Journey of the Dragon-house”) or existence (Chen Jingbo’s “Grave of the Fireflies“). Care for the elderly is a recurring topic, both literally — Xia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” explores telepresence — and allegorically: Liu Cixin’s “Taking Care of God” looks at the elder care requirements of the dying race that created humanity.

If these stories say anthing about Chinese sf, it’s that it’s a whole, complete, living breathing thing, capable of both pocket-protector crunchiness (Liu Cixin recasts a scene from The Three-Body Problem — using armies as calculators — as a historical tale) and real poignancy. There’s a there there — and it’s worth paying attention to.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Note
  1. To avoid confusion between Ken Liu and Liu Cixin, I’m calling Ken by his first name.