Arts book review

Broken stars, hearts, minds, and realities

Broken Stars takes you to imperial China, the far future, and everything in between

Broken Stars
Translated and Edited by Ken Liu
Tor Books
Feb. 19

In his second science fiction anthology, Broken Stars, Hugo award winner Ken Liu presents a diverse selection of works from 14 contemporary Chinese authors. In the introduction, Liu writes that he makes “no attempt at curating a ‘best of’ anthology....Instead, the most important criterion I used was simply this: I enjoyed the story and thought it memorable. When wielded honestly, very few stories pass this filter.” I tend to agree with him! So then, did Broken Stars live up to the mark? For the most part, yes. Since the stories differed so drastically in tone, it’s difficult to pinpoint any single, unifying strength between them. Instead, each author’s contribution left its own distinct impression. It is a testament to Liu’s strength as a translator that he is capable of preserving each author’s unique voice across the language barrier. For example, Xia Jia’s “Goodnight, Melancholy” is sweet, quiet, and intimate, while Fei Dao’s “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales” is absurd, psychedelic, and fun. These differences help prevent monotony and serve to accentuate each story’s emotional punch.

That said, not everything worked for me. I personally failed to connect with several of the shortest entries in the collection, like Hao Jinfang’s “The New Year Train” and Regina Kanyu Wang’s “The Brain Box.” I feel these stories are simply overshadowed by their beefier neighbors and that they would work much better on their own.

The range of content that Liu presents here is fantastic in more than one sense. Several stories, including Tang Fei’s “Broken Stars” (the titular entry), have explicitly magical elements, and a great deal explore alternative timelines, oftentimes reimagining historical events. There are stories set in space several billion years in the future, in imperial China, and everywhere in between. Thanks to these inclusions, Broken Stars might leave you asking what it means for something to be “science fiction.”

Liu provides accessible footnotes to elaborate on wordplay and context which may be unclear from the text itself. This was especially helpful in stories like Zhang Ran’s “The Snow of Jinyang,” which assume a familiarity with ancient Chinese history. Before each new author, Liu also dedicates a few pages to a quick bio which outlines the history of their work. I felt this was a wise choice, especially considering that a number of authors represented in this book have never been published in English before. Several times, these passages helped me understand that a story was playing into a trope or literary tradition that, due to its unfamiliarity, would have gone completely over my head. One such example is chuanyue, which Liu defines as a “genre of time-travel fiction whose closest English analog would be something like Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and traditional science fiction.”

Liu’s attention to detail makes it clear that this book has been meticulously and lovingly crafted. It would be miraculous if I resonated with every short in this collection, and while that didn’t happen, I came remarkably close. With his tight translation, strong content selection, and thoughtful editorial contributions, Liu has produced an excellent anthology, and whether you’re curious about the future, the past, or the rapidly evolving present, Broken Stars should not disappoint.