Sinopticon 2021, by various Chinese authors, translated by Xueting Christine Ni


Sinopticon 2021 cover
Hi all, I have just been reading this collection of short stories and thought folk might be interested to hear about them - I couldn't convince myself that any one of them, or the collection as a whole, would work as a group read, so here's a quick review... Unusually, I bought it as a real dead tree book from my local bookshop, though it is available in kindle as well.

Sinopticon 2021 is a collection of short science fiction stories by Chinese authors (in translation) with some interesting and unobtrusive notes by the translator. These notes include, for example, a short biography of each author, some brief explanations of culturally important concepts that would be missed by the average western reader, and occasional comments on how Chinese names, words and orthography are used to reinforce the storyline.

As a rule I don't really click with short stories, as I always want to know more about the situation than there is time for. But these have an interest value because of their origin. Apparently science fiction writing in China has grown massively in recent years, no doubt spurred on by the international acclaim of Cixin Lou (The Three Body Problem, The Wandering Earth, etc).

Now, a lot of the writing here feels to me like work-in-progress. For example, there are odd failures to get distances and other physical facts right. Some of the story settings also come across as derivative from well-known and successful western science fiction books. However, the foci of the stories, and the preoccupations of the writers, are often quite different.

My second favourite story, The Tide of Moon City, by Regina Kanyu Wang, illustrates both of these. The story straddles a binary planet with a history of antagonism and rivalry, and it is impossible to get far into it without thinking "this is Anarres and Urras from The Dispossessed". But in contrast to that novel, the story deliberately avoids exploring in any detail the political differences between the planets, and delves not at all into maths and physics. Instead it has as its subject the loneliness of two individuals who, having once met, can never do so again. So, if you like, it is Urras and Anarres after all, but where Shevek and Takver are from opposing planets, and never reunite.

Other preoccupations include personal dislocation, time travel, tension between social obligation and personal wish, artificial intelligence - all themes which are tackled by western authors as well, but the emphasis differs. Many science fiction authors in the west want, somewhere in their stories, to touch base with Big Issues, and to describe phenomena on the scale of a solar system or larger unit. The Chinese authors in this collection prefer to deal with the impact on individuals, or at most very small groups. The background may be vast in space or time, or it may involve colossal numbers of people, but the story is actually about two or three people.

Indeed, loneliness, especially in a crowd of others, together with thwarted goals and disappointments, are such prevalent themes that it is difficult not to project them onto contemporary Chinese life. As Xuetin Christine Ni says in her introduction, these stories "tend to end with a melancholic tone, because Chinese stories tend not to have happy endings".

My favourite of all of them is Meisje met de Parel by Anna Wu (The Girl with the Pearl Earring, provocatively left as a foreign phrase to English readers), which blends time travel and AI aspects into a rather haunting tale of a young artist trying to find an outlet for her creativity.

In summary, a fascinating and unusual insight into recent Chinese science fiction. It would be nice to think that longer works by these same authors might become available before too long.


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