Hodge Podge: Science Fiction in Translation

I never got into science fiction much until I read Wired For War and realized that good science fiction is where a lot of the thinking about philosophy and response to technology and science happens. And it’s even more interesting when it comes from another cultural perspective. So this week’s hodge podge is, for a bit of a twist, flavored Science Fiction in Translation.

Roadside Picnic – Translated from Russian, this novel had a very different feel from most American works of similar kinds. It was not like the older Russian novels I’m more familiar with, but it did have a distinctive difference…I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe the difference was that Roadside Picnic looks at alien technology in in a more pedestrian and less hero-driven way than an American author might have approached the same premise? The story itself struck me as inconclusive and low on hope, but it was interesting.

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Death’s End  – This fascinating and compelling trilogy was translated from Chinese by two different translators. I loved the way the author wove insights about the history and development of math and physics into the narrative, especially related to what went on in China during the Cultural Revolution. I think what really struck me about the trilogy was the reminder of how often we think of defense and technology in a Western-centric way, whereas there is an equally valid Sino-centric view that results in some completely different conclusions. The books deal with ethical conundrums like what actually underpins our standards and ethics on in the face of unforeseen circumstances, and how and why humanity often defaults to totalitarianism and what can be done about it. In many ways, these books reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, albeit with a different guiding hermeneutic.

On China – Unrelated to science fiction, but concurrent to the Cixin Liu books, I was also reading Kissinger’s On China, and found that it dovetailed well, especially in providing context to historical Chinese perspectives and cultural and academic changes of the more recent past.

What are your favorite sci-fi titles?


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4 thoughts on “Hodge Podge: Science Fiction in Translation

  1. I started The Three Body Problem over a couple years ago and gave it up as too dense for vacation-with-a-newborn-and-2yo reading, but maybe I should try it again. My dad said it was one of his favorites for the Hugo that year (he’s a member of WSFS and thus gets a vote), maybe even his favorite (3BP did win Best Novel in 2015). He’s also a physicist, so that’s high praise for a novel dealing with math and physics. So if you liked it also, I really should revisit it!

    I recently finished Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (translated from the Japanese). It would fit in this same sort of vein–philosophical science fiction with a non-Western paradigm. It’s weird with that specifically Japanese weirdness, but it’s good.

    1. How cool about your dad being in WSFS and getting to vote on the Hugo!

      I’ll have to check out the Murakami book. I really enjoyed his book about writing (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) and keep meaning to pick up some of his fiction. Thanks!

  2. I grew up in the USSR – so I read the Roadside Picnic in Russian. One of my favorite works of science fiction. It was banned and out of print for many years. Most of the works by the authors, Arkadi and Boris Strugatskie (they are brothers), are dark, deep, and somewhat hopeless. Comes with the territory 🙂 I really loved their novella “Malysh” (that would be “kid” or “Space Mowgli” in English… no idea how good the translation is) – to me, it seemed lighter and more hopeful.

    Tarkovskiy (Soviet equivalent of Kubrik) made a movie loosely based on Roadside Picnic, called Stalker. If you are into foreign film, it is a good one (very strange, very visual, pretty dark).

    I also highly recommend “Solaris” by Stanislav Lem (Poland). I loved the book (not so much the movies; there is a Tarkovskiy version and a Hollywood version).

    Science fiction is often not taken very seriously (including by censors) – so writers from places with oppressive regimes may have more creative freedom with sci-fi (and things slip by censors that wouldn’t pass in any other genre).

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