I don’t spend as much time in the depths of the book mines as I used to, but I still try to spend some time down in the stacks browsing for interesting books. That is how I discovered The City Trilogy by Chang Hsi-Kuo. This deceptively slim volume was published a few years ago by Columbia University Press. I’d never read any Chinese science fiction, so I figured that I should give it a try.
As the name implies, The City Trilogy is a deceptively thin volume containing three novels: Five Jade Disks, Defenders of the Dragon City and Tale of a Feather. Translated by John Balcom, he also includes an introduction to Chinese language science fiction from Taiwan. This trilogy by Hsi-Kuo originally appeared as newspaper serials before being published in book form in mid to late 80s.
These books are built around very different style and pacing than the predominately western science fiction that I am used to. Reading them evokes classical Chinese opera, especially its cinematic form, with a large cast of exotic characters and an epic plot that culminates in tragedy for nearly everyone involved. Along the way we are treated to martial arts and vast battles with a liberal spicing of laser guns, space ships and aliens. On top of all of this is a heavy dose of Asian mysticism and philosophy.
The story follows the young Miss Qi and her tutor Ah Chu as they attempt first to free their home of Sunlon City from the conquering Shan, then defend it from the Shan and others who would reconquer or destroy it. At the time of the story, Sunlon city is the capital of the Huhui people and in decline. Their once great empire is only a memory and their long history is full of self-inflicted tragedy.
The story is long and full of fanatics of all stripes, fighting in shifting alliances.
One of the most fascinating aspects of these books is the inclusion of alien ideograms. Throughout the text, where alien concepts might require new words, the author has instead created ideograms, which have been retained in the translation. These strange words are translated in footnotes and parenthetical asides, but give a strange glimpse at the word play we might be missing by not reading the original Chinese.
I definitely recommend these books to anyone who is a fan of the genre and loves a little exploration. The cultural sensibilities are awkward at times, but the trappings of a different literary tradition lend appropriately foreign airs to a vast tragedy taking place under a huge purple sun. Oh, and did I mention that there is time travel involved and the entire course of history may or may not have already been determined? Melodramatic indeed.
Check it out. It’s worth the effort.