Bite-size Reads: Sinopticon

Book cover: Sinopticon - Chinese SF stories translated by Xueting Christine NiWelcome back to Bite-size Reads, my 2022 challenge to read (some of) the amazing anthologies on my shelves. Today I’m looking at my second batch of stories from Sinopticon, a curated collection of Chinese SF translated and presented by Xueting Ni.

I’ve found this week’s stories required a bit more chewing, primarily due to personal preferences. I love a character-driven story that is big on emotional nuance and character; I’m increasingly feeling that kehuan is more a literature of science fictional ideas. And much like classic SF stories, I find that I may appreciate the ideas, but if I’m not engaged by the storytelling, it can end up being a miss for me. However, I am finding it fascinating to see familiar ideas get approached from new angles and responded to in different ways.

Cat’s Chance in Hell – Nian Yu

Sadly this is the first story to leave me completely cold: a familiar milSF tale of expendable soldiers dragged out of retirement and longing to get back to the family they left behind after one last impossible mission. It is a story that focuses on the human angle, although I didn’t feel the ending delivered the emotional payload I think it was aiming for (in part because this is a very familiar scenario, so a tough sell). I would have liked more exploration of ethical and personal implications; there’s a lot more road to travel in terms of considering love and loyalty as inherited vs earned traits, and questioning whether one is any more or less valid or strong than the other.

The Return of Adam – Wang Jinkang

Some things transcend cultural boundaries: enter the male gaze, courtesy of a middle-aged writer whose multiple eye-rolling attempts to incorporate a female character include the immortal line of “Besides, he had a moral responsibility towards Shirley: to liberate her beautiful body from the control of machines“. Oh, dude, no. Don’t take this as indicative of current Chinese SF – The Return of Adam was written in the early 90s and is included in part to show the roots of the current resurgence, to which this author has been a great contributor.

The sexism is a shame, because the concept is great: an astronaut returns to Earth to find he’s rather basic compared to the artificially enhanced humans who have come to dominate planet in the 200 years he’s been away (relativity is a bitch). There’s a strong philosophical throughline reflecting on resistance to change and what makes us human (are the new humans less human for having artificially-enhanced intelligence?) as Adam is encouraged to overthrow the new order and return humanity to its natural state. Ignoring the male gaze moments, I found the style rather dry, but lovers of Cixin Liu may find it more to their taste.

Rendezvous: 1937 – Zhao Haihong

Enter the most difficult story so far: a tense drama in which alien time traveler is sent back to assassinate another who has travelled back to gather evidence of the Japanese sack of Nanjing during World War II. In an unexpected twist, the assassin isn’t human. Their motivation? To save face on behalf of their Japanese allies, who – as best I can tell – are unaware of the plan. While Xia Fenfang is untouchable in the modern day – because murder is against the law – she doesn’t legally exist in 1937, so the aliens consider killing her in the past entirely acceptable.

All this introduces a bucket load of fascinating moral questions around accountability, rules-lawyering and abuses of power, but is primarily window-dressing. The heart of the tale is set in the past and examines the temptation to consider victims in some sense complicit when they offer no resistance to the crimes perpetrated against them. Xia is not just looking for evidence to prove that war crimes took place; she is seeking evidence of resistance, however hopeless in the face of overwhelming odds and great barbarity. She is fey and brave, with all the arrogance of a time traveler who knows she didn’t die here; and her reluctant assassin finds himself drawn to protect her.

There’s a lot to unpack, although unlike some of the more didactic tales in the collection it mostly puts the ideas out there for you to internalise and consider on your own time. It’s a fascinating, painful read and I don’t imagine for a moment that I can grasp how this story resonates with Chinese readers (as evidenced by the odd framing device of Xia Fenfang urging the author to write the story).

Approach with caution: the story includes graphic representations of atrocities.

The Heart of the Museum – Tang Fei

The idea of aliens living amongst us who experience all time simultaneously is not a new one and this story doesn’t necessarily push the concept anywhere new either, but it’s a sweet enough little reflection from an alien bodyguard who finds a place that resonates with them. That said, it hasn’t stayed with me at all.

The Great Migration – Ma Boyong

You might not pick this story as one I’d like – like The Return of Adam, it includes some egregious male nonsense – but… I really did, perhaps because it focuses on very familiar circumstances in a fresh context. Once every two years, Mars and Earth orbits align for a shorter-than-usual transit between the two, and there is a mass migration of workers heading home to see their loved ones. Anyone who has battled their way home for a national holiday will recognise the echoes, if not necessarily the specific experiences.

This is a story that focuses on the discomforts of overcrowded travel, uncaring bureaucracy in the name of ’fairness’, and the lengths people will go to to get home (along with the crimes people will commit to profit from desperation). It shows its workings through world-building and character interaction, featuring rivals who forge a transient connection as they try to navigate an escalating series of hurdles. I really enjoyed it as an example of a universal experience – the more things change as we spread out to space, the more some things stay the same…

Meisje met de parel – Anna Wu

When Shizuko’s parents’ marriage reaches a crisis point, she is drawn to the mystery of the long-ago girl who came between them. Simmering emotions and fractal themes drive this introspective tale, although its final message of the universality of art doesn’t really resonate for me (I’m a heathen, it’s okay). I loved this right up to the ’pull back the curtain’ ending, which I found abrupt and impersonal – another victim of my preference for emotional through lines over philosophical homilies.

Curious? You can find out more about Sinopticon in my SciFiMonth interview with editor Xueting Ni. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks or two with my thoughts on the last batch of stories from this anthology.

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