I usually try to link the books I review thematically, but what could possibly connect a collection of modern Chinese science-fiction short stories and a group of Scottish essays on art and literature going back over half a century?
Very little, to be honest, except for the breadth of creativity and imagination on show in both books, and that’s no bad thing.
First up we have the wonderful Broken Stars edited by Ken Liu. Chinese sci-fi has garnered a good amount of attention in the West over the last few years. The editor of this collection has won just about every science-fiction prize going, while Barack Obama famously recommended Liu Cixin’s award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem, with Amazon currently planning to turn it into a colossally budgeted series.
Broken Stars follows a similar 2016 collection called Invisible Planets, Liu expanding the diversity of styles and topics on offer, with 16 stories here from 14 authors, many of them translated into English for the first time.
There is a good mix of well-established authors and new voices. The former comes in the form of Cixin, whose Moonlight is wry and sardonic. In it, the central character is visited by future versions of himself, asking him to intervene and change Earth’s catastrophic energy policies. Each intervention makes things worse, however, in a tightly plotted and darkly humorous tale.
Another experienced writer is Han Song, whose two stories demonstrate his range wonderfully. Submarines is an eerie and melancholic story in which peasants living in submarines due to lack of housing almost become a separate species, while Salinger and the Koreans depicts an alternative universe in which North Korea successfully colonises America, with dramatic results.
A seductive piece of futuristic fantasy,
Among the newer voices, Under a Dangling Sky by Cheng Jingbo is a standout story, a seductive piece of futuristic fantasy that blends eastern and western myths and legends into something compelling and new.
While the styles on show are disparate, one thread that links many stories is the way they engage intelligently with Chinese myths and history. Similarly, many tackle the current political and cultural situations in their home country through the lens of speculative fiction, and overall this book gives a wonderful insight into the worldview and imagination of its smart and thoughtful writers.
Of Me And Others
Smart and thoughtful are both equally applicable to legendary Scottish author and artist Alasdair Gray. His bulky collection of essays, Of Me And Others, can be viewed as a companion piece to his previous book, A Life In Pictures, and it contains work spanning over 60 years.
‘Idiosyncratic’ is a word often used to describe both Gray’s work and the writer himself, and the same goes for this hotchpotch assortment of writings, from the cover and typography, which are the author’s own, through to the contents.
There are some personal essays on Gray’s childhood which are typically funny and self-deprecating, and there are pieces addressing some of his seminal works such as Lanark and 1982, Janine. There is also a lot of considered writing on the merits of other writers and artists, as well as some political musings, which will come as no surprise to Gray’s many admirers. It’s all bookended by two lovely poems, poignant and humorous in equal measure. A typically strange but compelling offering from a genuinely unique figure.
Broken Stars edited by Ken Liu is out on February 19 (Head of Zeus, £18.99)
Of Me And Others by Alasdair Gray is out now (Canongate, £17.99)
Illustration: Jamie Wignall