The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu
|The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu|
|Category: Science Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A serious collection of SF shorts that are all highly entertaining, running the gamut from the fun to the apocalyptic, any one of them is likely to show up as film script in a studio near you in the near future. The scientific premise is played for real in these stories and it is that, rather than the human interactions that takes centre stage. If you see SF as space-opera this isn't for you – if you're interested in the real what if you'll love it.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 464||Date: May 2017|
|Publisher: Head of Zeus|
If anyone thought that the short story as a form had been relegated to the pages of women's magazines (no disrespect) – think again. One genre that has always been a stalwart supporter and encourager of the short form is Sci-fi. So when you pick up a collection of Sci-fi shorts, you know that it will have just as much depth and thought-provoking philosophy as any similar novel. Add to that the intrigue of seeing how the concepts are approached by someone from China which – to be polite – has a somewhat different world-view in many ways to much of the rest of the planet…and add to that an author who is not only a best-seller in his home country but has the distinction of having produced the first translated work of SF ever to win the Hugo Award…this has got to be good!
I'm sure the cynics are already expecting me to counter that last sentence, with a 'but'…sorry to disappoint. There is no 'but'. This is seriously good writing, and highly entertaining reading.
A Guardian review quoted on the cover describes it as SF in the grand style – and if I have a caveat that would be it. This is very much 'grand style' science fiction, which is to say it is entirely focussed on fictionalising the science, pushing that to where it might go. It is heavy on philosophy (though not dense) and to my mind unfortunately light on real personal drama. The stories focus largely on the what if… with only marginal consideration of how the 'then what' would play out at the very personal level. Reading the tales I had 1950s America feel. Back then, American SF was very much reacting to the perceived threat of communism. Here I feel a Chinese SF very much reacting to the fall-out of its own history and its perceived future in a world that is being pillaged. Of all the literary genres, I've always thought that SF is the most politically engaged. Cixin Liu does nothing to dissuade me of that viewpoint.
One final comment before I finally get around to telling you about the stories…the author started his professional life as a computer programmer in a power plant. We can assume therefore that he does actually know his science.
The selection comprises ten tales, all of them about 40 to 50 pages in length. So a little more than a coffee-break read, but definitely benefitting from the ability to read a whole tale in a single sitting. I have to confess to deferring stuff to read a couple at a time. Throughout the voice is consistently Liu's – even where we get a first person (or first machine) point of view, there is limited differentiation from the authorial. This could make for a formulaic approach – and to be fair I do think that there is a slightly stilted feel to some of the telling, which might derive from the disparate language forms not really carrying across the translation, or might be there in the original deliberately or otherwise. It is not enough however to spoil the reading.
The title piece The Wandering Earth imagines a distant future in which the death of the sun is an imminent expectation. Helium would soon permeate the Sun's core, triggering a violent explosion called a helium flash. Afterward, the Sun would become a massive, cool-burning red giant, swelling until its diameter encompassed the Earth's orbit. This knowledge had been current 380 years previous, and the projected timeline for the flash was four hundred years. A lot of work has been done… the aim is to brake the Earth's Orbit, and then using massive power generators send it out into the galaxy as a real 'spaceship earth', sling-shotting it around planets to gain momentum on its way to a new home, a new start around which it can settle into a new Orbit. Of course, not everyone believes what they are told…
Mountain takes a guilt-ridden mountaineer who has condemned himself to a life at sea, as far away from the temptations of the mountains as he can get – only to put in his way the most bizarre form of mountain imaginable. When the aliens arrive at Earth they do so in a ship so massive that its gravitational pull draws up a huge stationary wave out of the ocean. It is hard reading this not to be reminded of Hukosai's wood-cuts. What follows is really a discourse on the nature of reality and perception: as our mountaineer seeks to understand the alien history and philosophy. For me that's where the fascination lies in this one. The moral at the end of the tale comes across as a little trite to my western sensibility. It may be more powerful in China.
I normally try to avoid going story by story in such collections but here it is hard not to do so, because each and every one has something to recommend it. I can't help feeling that each and every reader will take something different, and I don't want to sell it short. So let's snippet…
Sun of China leaves me wondering if anything like the English homophone of son / sun exists in Chinese – because if not, one of the best jokes in this semi-satirical tale won't exist in its original form. This is Shui Wah's life story as told through his self-improvement programme: his very modern series of Life Goals, which have him dealing with a world we can surely recognise, but then take him from very lowly beginnings to wheeling an ancient Prof Stephen Hawking across the plains of a man-made satellite via the high-tech world of window-cleaning.
For the Benefit of Mankind takes us into a particularly Chinese version of what elsewhere might be dubbed hit men in space. It seems we are not going to evolve beyond the practice of contract killing, even if we find far more inventive ways of justifying it.
Or indeed of carrying it out as we find in the next story Curse 5.0 which takes computer viral infection out beyond the machines it infects.
Moving away from all of this doom and gloom The Micro Era offers up an possible hope for humanity through a combination of genetic engineering and genetic evolution – not of the things that feed us, but of our own species. When disaster strikes the planet as we all know it will – and if you don't, trust me, by the time you're half way through Liu's tale of the future you'll be converted – then our best hope is to survive with much less than we're used to. This will be possible if we are much smaller than we now are. It's a classic of the SF canon that the alien invading force turns out to be so tiny compared to humanity that we don't even clock their arrival. I can't remember who wrote the original version of that one – though I recall that in Douglas Adams' version the invaders are wiped out by a dog sneezing. Liu turns it on its head and imagines full size humans returning to Earth after epochs and finding their own species miniaturised. Fairies at the bottom of the garden?
Devourer I'll skim over. The weakest of the offering for my money. Suffice it to say, it's another bunch of aliens intent on taking whatever's worth having from the planet and moving on.
Much more fun is Taking Care of God. I loved this. Again, I think it's probably not as funny in the translated version as it is in the original, and particularly as read by a Chinese. Even so, there are so many echoes of Adams and Pratchett in here that if a laugh-out-loud is not delivered, I dare you to get through it without at least a permanent wry smile. The basic premise is that God (or Gods) has (have) returned to Earth – the creation. And well, given that we did, essentially, create you…could you see your way clear to looking after us for a bit? Even as I write this, I'm sensing a touch of Monty Python as well. I'm saying no more. It is brilliant and for me vies with the title piece for strongest of the heap.
With Her Eyes is a lament – for nature, for unrequited love…and it leads directly into Cannonball. Both are focussed on attempts to travel to or through the centre of the earth, bringing Jules Verne bang up to date. So I know what that Guardian reviewer meant, when they talked about the grand style. Lots of the ideas in here are straight out of the traditional western SF canon, but re-wrought through 21st century science and Chinese history and politics. I would have liked more of the personal, but the bigger pictures do give you more than enough to think about for the time being.
No apologies for the length of this review – the book runs to over 400 pages – and the work in it deserves celebration. I now need to hunt down whatever else is available from this amazing writer in translation.
Speaking of translation – one of the translators involved in this project is himself an SF writer and we can recommend his own original work: check out Invisible Planets by Ken Liu.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu at Amazon.com.
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