Tag Archives: Ken 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 GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. It won the Locus First Novel, and the short story collection Liu published earlier this year is top shelf, as is his translation of The Three-Body Problem

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”


But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.


Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m more precise, the telling as such is not really the problem: it’s how it is being told, and that’s repetitive and slow paced. It’s boring telling. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. Because of all that, Liu’s tale failed to connect emotionally, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make me feel that. As a result, the action seemed stale and lifeless.

Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose – yet his long form feels like amateur hour.

Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

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The Paper MenagerieKen Liu is on quite a spree this year: in October Tor will publish his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to The Three-Body trilogy, in November Saga will publish The Wall Of Storms, the sequel to Liu’s own The Grace Of Kings, and November will see the release of Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF stories & essays, all of which he translated.

March 2016 saw the publication of The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories. Yes, that’s a great title, and an even better cover! The 450 page collection features 15 short stories and novellas, almost all of them from around 2012. They have all been published elsewhere before, except one. The stories are short indeed: most are about 20 pages. Only four are significantly longer: 38, 55, 61 and 95 pages.

Liu is quite explicit about his philosophical framework and goals in the preface. The universe is accidental and senseless, and the stories in The Paper Menagerie have a clear objective: they are tools in a search for meaning and truth.

For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors – which is the logic of narratives in general – over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.

We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves – they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth.

A few of the stories are quite meta, almost all deal with aspects of cultural identity of some sort, and there’s a clear presence of Asian themes and settings. Liu writes both fantasy and science fiction, and as such it is a varied collection. Still, in all of these stories Liu manages to write with a fairly recognizable voice: most share a kind of magical realism feel. You won’t find epic high fantasy, nor epic space opera, or chilling hard SF, but instead will find a subtle, sometimes even poetic collection – not without blood and suffering though. Taken as a whole, I loved it.

I will refrain from giving a summary for each story, but try to use each of them to highlight some features of Liu’s writing.

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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