A View From The Stars: Stories And Essays by Cixin Liu (book review).

‘A View From The Stars’ is a collection of stories and essays by celebrated Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu, best known for ‘The Three-Body Problem’. The fiction and non-fiction pieces are jumbled together, but I’ll focus on the essays first and the stories afterwards.

It’s slightly jarring that in the essays, Cixin Liu often refers to science fiction as sci-fi, which may be a translation issue. I tend to think of sci-fi as the stuff of television and movies and science fiction as the literature, a distinction I may have borrowed from Asimov. The first essay, ‘Time Enough For Love’, states that the author didn’t have a television growing up in the 1970s, so it was the written word that fed his imagination. His first book was ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ by Jules Verne, which he thought was a true account until his father identified it as science fiction.

In ‘One and One Hundred Thousand Earths’, Liu proposes that there are two alternative futures for humanity. Invest huge sums in environmental protection or lesser sums in exploring the solar system, using its resources, and perhaps colonising it. He favours the latter and makes interesting points to support this, not least that non-human factors like an ice age can cause environmental collapse in the long run, no matter what efforts we make. So, go, Jeff! Go, Elon! Save us from ourselves.

‘Civilization’s Expansion in Reverse’ has the alternative argument that we can make humanity fit the planet’s limited resources by shrinking ourselves, maybe even down to the size of bacteria. This doesn’t necessarily result in a lack of brainpower, as much data can be fitted onto a very small silicon chip now. Well, it’s a possibility, but one I hope to avoid.

The short stories are very good. Of fiction, Liu says, ‘I’ve never thought it’s sci-fi’s job to represent reality or human nature.’ Even so, both feature to some degree in his stories. ‘Whale Song’ tells of Uncle Warner, a heroin smuggler trying to get his goods into the USA but frustrated by the cops and coastguard’s use of neutrino detectors, which always spot the illicit cargo. Dave Hopkins, a Cal Tech genius, has a plan to use whales. I like the omniscient author point of view about Whale Song on page 17, which was science poetry, but, overall, this story struck me as black humour.

At Princeton University in the 1950s, an old man finds solace in playing his violin while he worries about humanity’s future and wonders if its doom is his fault. Some young fellow is hanging around and offers him a wonderful new violin. ‘The Messenger’ is a quiet, hopeful story, and you wish it were true.

Chaos theory gives ‘Butterfly’ its title. Evil Americans are bombing Yugoslavia, and a local scientist thinks he may be able to help by triggering ‘atmospheric sensitivity points’ around the world to influence the weather. The story juxtaposes his exploits with his daughter’s suffering back home. Tales of helpless children under attack from superior air power resonated at the time of writing. There’s an interesting point of view switch to the Cray supercomputer in Dubna, one hundred miles north of Moscow. ‘ A typhoon of logic howled across the vast electronic world of its memory, whipping up turbid, monstrous waves of data. Nice.

In ‘Destiny’, a couple on honeymoon in their space yacht spot a large asteroid headed for Earth and are puzzled by the home planet’s lack of action, as sophisticated systems are in place for such an eventuality. They save the day with unintended consequences. This was published in 2001, and it’s so 1940s that I don’t think any editor at a pro-level Western SF magazine would have accepted it, though they should.

I’ve read at least one good SF story about what happens when they try something new and dangerous at the Large Hadron Collider. ‘Heard It In The Morning’ features an even bigger particle accelerator that circles the whole globe and an experiment with unexpected consequences, including a visitor to Earth. This is another story very reminiscent of Golden Age science fiction, and it’s great.

Taken as a whole, the book is dated because most of the articles and stories are from around the turn of the century, but that doesn’t make them any less interesting. The author shoots himself in the foot when he says in ‘Thirty Years of Making Magic Out of Ordinariness’: ‘Science fiction… is like tap beer—you’ve got to drink it quick. Read today; even sci-fi classics seem feeble, not revelatory. The nature of science fiction is to shine brightest in the present, then to be quickly forgotten.’ It’s an odd sentiment for someone whose own stories are so reminiscent of the American Golden Age of science fiction. Cixin Liu’s old stories and essays don’t seem at all feeble to me, and this book is definitely worth a look in 2024.

Eamonn Murphy

April 2024

(pub: TOR, 2024. 224 page hardback. Price: £27.99 (US), £21.98 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25029-211-7. Ebook price: $14.99 (US), £ 3.99 (UK). A Head Of Zeus UK release is due 09 May 2024)

check out website: www.tor.com

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His eBooks are available at all good retailers or see his website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

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