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 the final batch of stories from Sinopticon, a curated collection of Chinese SF translated and presented by Xueting Ni.

All good things come to an end – and Sinopticon goes out on a high, featuring three brilliant tales that stand alongside Qiankun and Alex as the best in collection. Having note that last week’s stories were more idea-based than character-driven, this week’s tales flipped that on its head with a personal story of the zombie apocalypse, a star-crossed romance and a soliloquy on commitment and the power of seeking knowledge.

Flower of the Other Shore – A Que

Much to my delight, what I think may be the longest tale in the collection is a first person narration of the zombie apocalypse – from a zombie’s point of view. This stood out for its sense of humour and the down to earth, good-natured camaraderie between its walking dead. We’ve all been trapped doing things we didn’t really enjoy (or indeed want to do), trying to put a brave face on it – why should zombies be any different?

The characters cheerfully lampshade the absurdity of Hollywood tropes even as they rationalise their apocalypse within the context of them. If I was briefly worried that the love interest needed a lot of rescuing, I was pleased to see her step up in the second half of the tale. The adherence to familiar tropes end up being the story’s weakness, but it’s still awfully good fun.

The Absolution Experiment – Bao Shu

Unfortunately, this was my least favourite story in the collection: an off the peg unethical science experiment that was intended to raise difficult questions about justice and retribution, but just felt gimmicky and predictable. The most interesting aspect was that the story was quite explicitly not set in China, begging the question of whether it is frowned upon to show the state engaging in morally questionable activity – even when the victim would otherwise be serving a life sentence for multiple murders.

The Tide of Moon City – Regina Kanyu Wang

Told across two timelines, this wistful tale of stolen opportunities was a balm. A gifted young researcher is limited by the sexism of her controlling home planet, but her work is received enthusiastically on neighbouring Bizhe. Unfortunately, any collaboration would need to navigate the rising political tensions between the two planets. The challenges of international academic relationships play out alongside a web of unlikely friendship, forbidden love and treacherous self-interest. While I was mildly frustrated at how forgiving Dianne is, I enjoyed this gentle tale as a character-driven romance where SF was context rather than the thrust of the narrative.

Starship: Library – Jiang Bo

What bookworm could resist a story of an immortal librarian who is determined that her library will remain open for as long as a reader may need it – and insists that such things cannot be measured by mere footfall, but only against the epic sweep of time? Over millennia, the Book Ark becomes one vessel in an enormous fleet as she continues to accumulate the wisdom of the galaxy; waiting for the sign that the library’s time has come at last. This is just fantastic, featuring indifferent humans, frustrated AI, lost civilisations, misguided marauders, and the unshakeable belief that even in a digital age we shouldn’t forget the joys – and other benefits – of steeping ourselves in the written word and choosing our own learning path. A re-imagining of Chinese myth with shades of Doctor Who in its humour and wisdom (but thankfully no astronaut-consuming shadows in its library).

And that’s it for Sinopticon. I’ve really enjoyed my journey through this excellently curated collection, and am looking forward to reading some more Chinese SF later this year. 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 with a selection from my next collection of short stories – which I haven’t picked out yet, so it will be a surprise!

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