Welcome to Lightspeed! Your story “Invisible Planets” takes the reader on a tour of an unknown galaxy and introduces them to the inhabitants and customs there. Amiyachi and Aihuowu were my favorite invisible planets because they reminded me of the place I live and am getting to know better. Is there one planet in particular that feels most familiar to you right now?
The one that comes to mind is Chincato, the planet where the inhabitants live in perpetual darkness and must rely on sound to locate each other. The inspiration for this planet is our life on the Web. There, I’ve always felt that everyone seems obsessed with making noise, with ostentatious display of their own beauty and pride. A silent person might as well not exist.
In other contexts, this phenomenon isn’t as obvious as it is on the Web, but you can still sense that everywhere—in schools, in social venues, in the media—everyone seems to be using their own voice to define a space for themselves, to locate their place in the world. Only those who shout incessantly can live easily, while those who are quiet might as well be living in darkness, their disappearance unknown to anyone.
And so the world is filled with noise. Many are talking, but no one is listening.
I went for a walk recently through an unfamiliar neighborhood, and I thought of Amiyachi and Aihuowu. Even just a short distance away people live very differently than I do, and despite being neighbors we don’t know anything of each other. Was there an experience like that for you, before you wrote about Amiyachi and Aihuowu or after? Do you think that there are summer and winter people, or neighbors who live on different time?
Absolutely. Neighbors can possess completely different lifestyles and rhythms. Take Beijing as an example. Every dawn and dusk, the streets are filled with millions of workers hurrying through the wide avenues and narrow alleys, rushing towards their jobs at a sprint. But in the sunlight of the afternoons, you can see old men and women, their hair white, strolling in the streets with young children. From time to time, they drink tea or play chess, everything happening at a leisurely pace. Then, at midnight, when most places are quiet, yet another group appears in the streets: The young are heading to the clubs, to dance and sing and drink—the nightlife of Beijing is rich and colorful.
None of these groups seem to cross each other’s paths. Though they inhabit the same city, they live in completely different worlds.
Your narrator says: “The real key isn’t about whether what I say is true, but whether you believe it. From start to end, the direction of narrative is not guided by the tongue, but by the ear.” Every story is different to every reader, but it seems that you may have written this one specifically to be so. What are some of the different ways that you think “Invisible Planets” may strike the reader? Or do you think identifying such things takes away from the reading?
For me, there are at least two ways to read “Invisible Planets.” First, I tried to imagine many planets, each different from the world we live in. Second, all of these worlds can be said to be Beijing—just like in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, all the cities described by Marco Polo can be said to be his home in Venice.
Beijing is a city with many faces. Everyone who comes and makes the city their home can speak of different impressions (just like Pimaceh in my story). Every visitor sees a different Beijing. Many of my inspirations come from the Beijing and China I see around me.
When you tell a story about the different aspects of a city, they are abstracted into “planets,” and readers can perhaps recognize their own cities in the text, which together form into the idea of the City. This is like a writer describing a greedy person, a kind person, a timid person, or showing a person’s greed, kindness, timidity—all of these, together, coalesce into the abstract idea of Mankind.
Which authors do you feel influenced you most, both as a reader and a writer? What was it about their work that stayed with you? Can you recommend some authors our readers may not have encountered, and would be enriched by?
At different points in my career, different writers inspired me. “Invisible Planets” is an homage to Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Early on, Calvino was my favorite writer. Later, the writers I came to appreciate include Camus and Faulkner. Their works probe the depths of the human heart with calm narrative, and they are filled with precise, rich details.
In science fiction, I like the works of Arthur C. Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and my translator, Ken Liu. I also think highly of Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, whose imagination and humor are so evocative and memorable, and Ireland’s Colm Tóibín, whose stories are soulful and moving. Among Chinese science fiction writers, I especially like Liu Cixin; he writes with a grandness of spirit.
We are grateful to you for your story, and to Ken Liu for translating your work, allowing us to bring it to our readers. Do you have any other projects due to be translated into English that we can look forward to? What will you be working on next?
I’ve published many science fiction and fantasy stories in Chinese, but most of them are probably too long for English magazines. Their subjects include the future, human resistance of alien invasions, etc. I’ve also published two novels in Chinese, but as you know, it’s very difficult to get novels translated into English and published here. I’m currently working on a few short science fiction stories and a novel with some fantastical elements.
I hope to have more opportunities in the future to meet readers outside China!