Posts filed under 'orbital library'

The Orbital Library: Interviewing Ken Liu

“All writers are writing science fiction in a certain sense in so far as they explore concepts of alienation and modernity.”

Ken Liu is a Chinese-born American writer whose body of translations and original fiction is helping shed light on the current boom of science fiction and fantasy writing in China to English-speaking audiences. A lawyer and programmer by profession, he made his publishing debut with “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story about a mail-order bride and her son coping with cultural alienation through the care of sentient origami animals. The story swept the science fiction and fantasy establishment, garnering the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards in a stroke. Many more stories and translations were to follow.

Liu first came to my attention through his translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a trilogy by the bestselling author Cixin Liu, popularly regarded as the key figure in China’s science fiction community.

The novel is made up of two interwoven narratives, one set in near-future China (no concrete dates are given) and the other during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist and engineer whose father is brutally murdered during an uprising of the Red Guards. Branded a reactionary because of her family ties, she is sent to  a rural labor camp. Her troubles are compounded when the authorities learn of her interest in the nascent environmental movement.


A Message from Space

In his latest installment from The Orbital Library, Matthew Spencer tackles translation and alien communication

Since the beginning of the genre, science fiction writers have speculated on what it would be like to communicate with beings from another world. For the most part, these scenarios don’t depart much from how we humans communicate with each other. Both literal and literary devices are introduced to smooth over differences. Someone sets up a machine, usually called a universal translator, which seamlessly renders alien speech intelligible. A galactic lingua franca—some sort of space English—is another related convention.

These are efficiencies, meant to push along the plot or prevent awkward assumptions on the part of the reader, such as aliens speaking English or Hebrew or whatever language in which the story happens to be written. In the days when the genre consisted primarily of short fiction, such quick and dirty means were also necessary to shepherd the reader as quickly as possible into the adventure, without too much digression into the subject of linguistics.

Advances in machine translation, such as Skype’s new instantaneous voice-to-voice translation service, have borne out, at least in part, the speculations of the hack magazine writer. But universal translation hasn’t always seemed plausible. Writing in 1960, Kingsley Amis called it “blatant pseudoscience.” In his survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, he makes an apology for the reliance on UT as a plot device, believing that its use might stretch the credulity of the general reader to the breaking point. Scenarios of faster-than-light travel were much more feasible, Amis thought—and with good reason, writing as he did in a time when aerospace was the vanguard technology.


From the Orbital Library: Isle-to-Isle

Interviewing project collaborators Berny Tan and Sher Chew on the intersections of design, literature, and data visualization

Isle-to-Isle is a collaborative data visualization project by Sher Chew and Berny Tan. Each week, the two read 10 pages from Jules Verne’s classic “scientific romance,” The Mysterious Island, and seperately make a graph representing the book’s content. Their work is published on the project’s website, alongside the corresponding passage by Verne.

In the novel, a group of Americans, led by the railroad engineer Cyrus Harding, hijack a balloon to escape imprisonment by the South during the American Civil War. The balloon drifts to an uncharted island in the South Pacific, where the men create their own microcosm of 19th century civilization. A century and a half after its publication, The Mysterious Island continues to influence literature and popular culture, with numerous adaptations and spin-offs in print, movies, and television, including the computer game Myst.

Isle-to-Isle evolved out of a shared interest in design and a desire to explore different ways reading and interpreting text. In that sense, the project’s inception resembled Verne’s fictive voyage into unknown territory. Neither Sher Chew nor Berny Tan had read the book before. The novel was chosen at random, based on its length and conventional narrative structure. Other parallels emerged. The two designers moved from Singapore to that other insular powerhouse of commerce, Manhattan. Isles to isles—the homophonic word pair also reflected the search for suitable material. The Mysterious Island was discovered, so to speak, by browsing New York’s famous Strand bookstore, the name itself being another name for level, sandy shore.

As of this writing, Isle-to-Isle is halfway finished. I corresponded with Sher Chew and Berny Tan to find out more about the project and get their take on recent developments in the technology of reading, writing, and designing. 


From the Orbital Library: “Definitely Maybe”

Russian science fiction goes claustrophobic in this work by the Strugatsky brothers—a review

There’s something disconcertingly contemporary about Definitely Maybe, a novella by the masters of Russian science fiction, brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1974 and has every appearance of taking place in that world. Earlier this year, Melville House brought out the first unexpurgated English translation, a task impossible before the dissolution of the Marxist-Leninist state in 1991. This may seem like ancient history to those born into a world of ubiquitous, instantaneous digital communication. But within this slim volume, there are hints of the frustrated ambitions and pervasive distraction that define our present.

Dmitri Malianov, an astrophysicist, is on the cusp of a discovery, one that in his estimation might very well bring him a Nobel Prize. His wife and child are away, visiting family in Odessa. With nobody but his pet cat to take care of, Malianov has the time and freedom to make a breakthrough. But soon come anonymous deliveries of expensive food and alcohol. Then friends and colleagues start calling him out of the blue, first by telephone and then in person, nervously asking questions about the progress he’s made. A woman unexpectedly shows up at Malianov’s door, a school friend of his wife, beautiful enough to drive the scientist to distraction. Events are conspiring to keep him from his discovery. READ MORE…

From the Orbital Library: Gert Jonke’s “Awakening to the Great Sleep War”

"In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary eyed bedding out of the windows."

In the science fiction of movies and television, the future looks more or less uniform. Digital technology is (somehow) even more omnipresent than it is today. A continuous mosaic of audio and video spills across every available surface. A glass skyline stretches toward the horizon with sleek automobiles gliding past the frame. If human culture has existed, say, for more than a few decades, the evidence of that is not visible.

This kind of scenario is a reflection of contemporary reality, of course. Science fiction has traditionally dressed up the future in contemporary styles. And this presentism seems justified today. In our swiftly urbanizing world, the built environment often appears as if it had emerged overnight, without precedent. The megalopolises of Asia and Latin America, with their endless high-rise apartment blocks and elevated thoroughfares, seem to presage something universal for humankind, at least while we can keep industrial civilization going.

But there is another kind of future city, one defined by the accretion of time, where reality is defined by the weight of history rather than its absence. The late Austrian polymath Gert Jonke made a career evoking such places. His complex, often bizarre novels explore how the past continually impinges on the present, particularly in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, first published in 1982 and brought to English last year by Dalkey Archive Press.