Tag Archives: Cixin Liu

DEATH’S END – Cixin Liu (2010, transl. 2016)

deaths-endCultural differences exist. In the excellent article Wheat People vs. Rice People, T.M. Luhrmann discusses, among other things, insights from psychologist Thomas Talhelm, published in Science in 2014. Talhelm makes a convincing case for the fact that the difference between the individualism of the West and the more communal societies of the East can be traced back to their agricultural history. Rice needs a team effort to grow and harvest: rice fields “require complex irrigation systems that have to be built and drained each year.” Irrigation cannot be built and maintained by individual farmers, it needs a cooperating village. Wheat on the other hand can be grown much more easily: it “needs only rainfall, not irrigation. To plant and harvest it takes half as much work as rice does, and substantially less coordination and cooperation.” It is hardly surprising that material circumstances shape cultures, but this particular link was eye-opening to me.

With all that in mind, it is also no surprise that Death’s End, the final volume in the Three Body trilogy, again shows humanity acting as one character. This is quite explicit: Cixin Liu inserts the image of humans acting like an ant colony a few times in the story’s 602 pages. It is not that Liu doesn’t recognize difference, it’s just that he focusses more on the end result of the whole.

Yifan said, “The universe contains multitudes. You can find any kind of ‘people’ and world. There are idealists like the Zero-Homers, pacifists, philanthropists, and even civilizations dedicated only to art and beauty. But they’re not the mainstream; they cannot change the direction of the universe.” “It’s just like the world of humans.”
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THE DARK FOREST – Cixin Liu (2008, translation 2015)

The Dark Forest

The depth and expanse of deep space exhibited an arrogance that left no support for the mind or the eyes.

This novel is an entirely different beast than its predecessor. I liked The Three-Body Problem a lot, and looked forward to reading this sequel. I can’t say I liked it as much. Don’t get me wrong: there’s lots of good stuff in these pages, but as a whole it didn’t live up to the expectations I had.

I think there are two main reasons for my disappointment. The most important one is probably that I didn’t buy the actions and emotions of an important character: humanity itself. (Liu uses lots of exposition to tell the story, and the way he does that results in humanity as a whole becoming a character. This is reinforced by having the individual characters have lots of meetings and conferences with the United Nations and similar organizations that speak for the human race as a whole.) In a way, the premise of this book is similar to Seveneves: it looks like civilization is going to be destroyed in the future, and humanity has to devise plans to deal with this inevitability. In Seveneves a cataclysm will happen in a couple of years, in The Dark Forest the apocalypse is 4 centuries away. There has been some discussion on the fact that things happen more or less orderly in Seveneves: the response of the international community to the threat is quite rational for the most part, and things get done neatly. Wether such a smooth, regulated reaction is likely or even plausible is indeed debatable. The same can be said about how Earth responds to the Trisolarian crisis in The Dark Forest, with the difference that in this book the reactions are often irrational and not orderly. A certain degree of erratic, emotional behavior is to be expected when aliens are going to invade, but I’m not sure if I buy the particular stuff Liu envisions. Continue reading

THE WANDERING EARTH – Cixin Liu (2013)

The Wandering EarthThe Wandering Earth is a short story collection of the Chinese author Cixin Liu, who won the 2015 Hugo award for the compelling first book of the Three-Body trilogy. If you liked that, you’ll find much to rejoice in in this collection, with the obvious caveat that the short story form is something else than the novel.

The book features 11 stories, mostly about 50 pages each. A few of them are loosely related. The translations were done by Ken Liu – who also translated The Three-Body Problem – and Holger Nam. Four of the stories won the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award. I’ll use the first story to point out some general remarks about this collection, and give a quick write-up and a hint about the subject matter of each of the other stories afterwards.

The title story, The Wandering Earth (46pp., 2000), is a grim tale about the migration of planet earth to another star. It is strangely beautiful and is filled with great ideas. Like most stories in this collection, Liu uses a detached narrator, with a hard to define sense of time and pacing, which seems more free than most Western stories. And just as in all the other stories, emotions of characters exist, but are mostly subdued. There’s some great imagery and the prose is crystal clear, as throughout the entire book. Interestingly this story is nearly only telling, yet that doesn’t feel bad at all – like most stories in this collection, this is very much a tale.

Mountain (47pp., 2005) is about an encounter with mechanical aliens that evolved inside a distant planet. It features a kind of parallel history to our own scientific evolution, and it is very, very cleverly done. The main protagonists provides enough balance so that the story doesn’t feel like a history lesson only, yet achieves some insights about the nature of being human too.

Of Ants and Dinosaurs (56pp., 2003) didn’t work for me. It is quite literally a fable: an alternative history of a society of ants and dinosaurs that symbiotically evolved before the dawn of humanity. It has some merit and mostly has a fun, lighter vibe, but ultimately fails because of giant plot inconsistencies.

Sun of China (49pp., 2002) is the aspiring story of a young & poor villager going to the big city, joining an important scientific project. It’s set in the near future of the 21st century. It’s fairly interesting and has some obvious egalitarian social commentary, and a hilarious deadpan cameo of Stephen Hawking.

The Wages of Humanity (54pp., 2005) combines the story of a hitman with that of an alien invasion. On top of that it’s hard-hitting satire on capitalism. It works very well, it’s both funny and mysterious, and has some beautiful, albeit gruesome, images.

Curse 5.0 (22pp.) is the story of a computer virus’ evolution. Liu also pokes fun at himself here. Imaginative, although a bit repetitive near the end, and a bit predictable too.

The Micro-Age (30pp., 1998) is short and underdeveloped. It’s idea of humans that evolved to nano-scale is nice, but not much more. It’s also dated, since the insights on the importance of our human microbiome are totally absent from this story.

Devourer (45pp., 2002) is about a giant generation starship of lizards that plunders planets, and the reaction of humanity as it approaches Earth. It’s Godzilla meets Roald Dahl meets Independence Day and it’s as deadpan hilarious as it is bleak.

Taking Care of Gods (40pp.) deals with an atrophied seeder civilization that returns to Earth. Ultimately, it’s about love. It’s interesting and fits this collection well.

With Her Eyes (18pp., 1999) is the shortest piece in the collection and to say something about the content would spoil it. It’s more poetic than an actual story. I liked it.

The Longest Fall (58pp., 2003) is the last and longest story featured. It is about a scientist involved in an experiment with unforeseen consequences for the entire Earth. It again shows Liu’s fascination with the interior of planets. It’s a classic SF tale about the possibilities of aspiring human imagination. It’s okay, but sadly inconsistent in the morality some of its characters employ, which makes for a rather silly narrative arc.

In a way, most of these stories are about the tension between hope and the inevitability of demise; and the insignificance of the individual when compared to the whole of society or the whole of the universe. In that sense, Cixin Liu clearly is an Eastern writer. The mild strangeness of these Chinese stories may well be an additional delight for most Western science fiction readers that crave Otherness.

This book is available as a print-on-demand title, so it is unlikely you’ll find it in your regular bookstore without ordering it. 

THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM – Cixin Liu (2007, translation 2014)

The Three-Body ProblemThis first book of the Three-Body trilogy isnt’s so much SF set against the backdrop of Chinese history, but rather the reverse: a book about the history of the Cultural Revolution seen through the eyes of scientists. It takes quite some time before it turns into SF. If it weren’t for the dust jacket blurb, you wouldn’t really know this had anything to do with aliens until about page 270 (of 390 pages), and only the final 60 pages are what could be called full blown SF – luckily of the thrilling, mind-blowingly epic kind. But this long build up doesn’t matter, because it’s an excellent story, and it is the first part of three: Liu Cixin really takes his time to set things up, and that pays off. The book has real depth and attention to detail, both character as science wise.

The Chinese dimension is really interesting. One gets insider insight in the madness of the revolutionary era. I’m surprised a book that is this critical was allowed to be published in China itself. It only proves that my understanding of China is very limited, and reading this opened up things a bit.

Parts of the book are devoted to the world of an online game, and that has a kind of magical realism feel to it – almost a mythical, Wolfeian kind of storytelling. It reminded me a bit of the sequences of Reynolds’ House Of Suns devoted to a virtual reality game, and its theme is partly the history of science itself: Stephenson’s Baroque cycle popped in my mind at times too. It’s intriguing and harrowing. Very good stuff.

The last part of the book owes a lot to ecological themes. In a sense, this book deals with the same questions and problems that Dune‘s Leto tried to solve with the Golden Path.

The prose is strangely detached and at times very beautiful. The narrating voice is more fluid than in most Western books, and that makes for an interesting read too.

I can’t wait to read the 2nd volume – which promises to be much more SF. The series as a whole should undoubtedly become classic. The Three-Body Problem is highly recommended. Mandatory reading.

originally written on the 16th of February, 2015