Bite-size Reads: Sinopticon

Book cover: Sinopticon - Chinese SF stories translated by Xueting Christine NiWelcome to Bite-size Reads, my 2022 challenge to read (some of) the amazing anthologies on my shelves. I’ll be chiming in every couple of weeks with thoughts on the stories I’ve recently enjoyed – starting today with tales from Sinopticon, a curated collection of Chinese SF translated and presented by Xueting Ni.

The Last Save – Gu Shi

What if we could back-up our lives and reload a past save to fix our fuck ups? Gu Shi delivers a neat application of parallel worlds with a twist: your timelines don’t collapse when you reload, because they still exist for everyone else in them… you just disappear from them. When you reload a previous save, you don’t re-enter the same time-stream and change it – you create a new parallel reality (and dodge paradox). Think of the traumatised children, devastated lovers, implicit political and economic carnage propagating across the metaverse. Sounds heavy, but by keeping it strictly at the personal level, Gu Shi creates an unexpectedly sweet story of a man learning to live with his mistakes in order to stay with the woman he loves. Tender and thought-provoking – a great way to kick off the anthology!

Tombs of the Universe – Han Song

A long tale of two halves, which worked better for me individually than as a pair (if that makes sense). In the first, a youth is intrigued by an ancient tradition of monumental graves found across the galaxy. Having studied archaeology, I loved this for the way it reflects how we try to understand the silent past and the dangers of over-interpreting remains in the absence of a shared culture. As an older man, our historian grapples with an emerging societal desire to dig up the past for their ancient secrets (rather than studying sources and leaving the dead undisturbed).

The second gives us a primary source, a grave builder’s account of his career that unwraps the motivations, superstitions and other concerns of the past. I was less fond of this (I certainly wasn’t a fan of digging up the tradition of maritime misogyny and projecting it into spacefaring), although I rather enjoyed the slightly melancholy tone.

Taken together, the two halves form a philosophical piece that different people can take different things from. There’s a lot here about tradition, technology and social attitudes, although my favourite aspect remains the way subjective experience influences our understanding of the world (mind your bias, folks).

Qiankun and Alex – Hao Jingfang

My favourite so far, this is an adorable short in which the global AI that runs more or less everything is tasked to learn new things from children. This is every bit as cute it sounds, with Jingfang portraying a series of interactions between Alex – a curious, playful child who is seeking a particular friend – and Qiankun, the bemused AI whose interpretations of Alex’s motivations are simultaneously hilariously accurate and fundamentally misplaced. The result is utterly charming as Qiankun learns to accept that it still has a lot to learn about humans… and that’s okay.

Curious? You can find out more about Sinopticon in my SciFiMonth interview with editor Xueting Ni.

I’m really enjoying this anthology so far – I’ll be back in a week or two with my thoughts on the next batch of stories from it!

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.