Sinopticon 2021: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction, is a new collection of short stories from Chinese scifi authors, presenting new futures and worlds. All the stories have been curated and translated in English by Xueting Christine Ni. Every time I noticed connections to Chinese history and culture, these made the stories richer for me, but I don’t think a reader would need to have a background in Chinese lit to read and enjoy this collection.
I really enjoyed Gu Shi’s story The Last Save, about a future technology that allows saving and rebooting our lives to go back and redo mistakes. This premise is so intriguing, asking what if we could undo a past choice and live a new life? When we look back on our lives with this ability to save and restart, we’d all be able to choose a different major and end up in a different career, to live in a different city, or maybe realize our hometown was the right place, to break up with that loser three years earlier. We could save before a major life choice, like accepting a new job or starting a new relationship, and have an easy respawn out if it didn’t work out. And the way it affects our characters and their lives is fascinating.
A Que’s story, Flower of the Other Shore adds a twist on the ol’ zombie tropes. I know, I know, after decades of zombie stories, I didn’t think there was any water left in that well either, but A Que found some. Perhaps by leaning into the Hollywood tropes and then subverting them in the apocalypse? This is a gristly story and a surprisingly moving one, with moments of humor, too.
Each short story in Sinopticon ends with a note about the author’s background and context on the story. I mostly found this very interesting, since when I find an author I like, I often go on a mission to find the rest of their works. At times, these notes felt a bit heavyhanded, especially after some of the great stories. The story worked, so it’s not necessary to explain it to readers again. My Mandarin taps out at ordering food, so I was very interested in all the notes on translation and language choices, both in the footnotes in the text and in the end notes after the stories.
The standout for me in Sinopticon was The Great Migration, by Ma Boyong, a story of travelers trying to get home to Earth during the limited period when the orbits line up for a shorter trip, creating a new mass exodus for a new lunar celebrations. This story recalls distinctly Chinese aspects of the desperate crush and shady business around getting tickets home for CNY, but anyone who’s ever waited at an airport will recognize elements. Should I use a bit of my precious carry-on space for a snack? Or pay $18 for a mediocre airport sandwich? How much of my time off will I spend waiting for my connection? Am I ever going to make it home? The world here felt wildly hostile, but also very believable.
Those are just a few of the stories that I particularly enjoyed, there are other great ones too. With any collection, not every story can be my favorite. I love the wild worlds that good science fiction suggests, but I also need to care about my characters. So the stories in Sinopticon that fell a bit flat for me usually had interesting worlds or situations, but without engaging characters in them.
Overall, this was a fascinating look at possible futures, through a Chinese lens.