Hold Up The Sky by Cixin Liu (book review).

October 1, 2020 | By | Reply More

Cixin Liu’s second English-language shorty story collection, ‘Hold Up The Sky’, comes to us via a selection of various translators, presenting stories from almost two decades of the Chines SF master’s work. His previous novels and collection have been translated by individual translators, so this time I decided that I would attempt to spot stylistic or tonal differences in the works of the different translators. I failed in this attempt but right from the beginning of the book Cixin Liu’s authoritative tone and steady pacing came to the fore.

The collection opens with ‘The Village Teacher’ in which the eponymous teacher is determined to impart some last pearls of wisdom to his young students before cancer takes him. It’s a poignant and vivid picture of tough rural village life and the hard choices that the parents make in order to survive from day to day. The teacher’s attempts to instil the importance of an education on his pupils is reinforced by an unlikely ally in the form of an intergalactic invasion fleet.

‘The Time Migration’ uses an idea that was expanded on in the ‘Three Body’ books, that of freezing parts of the population for decades or even centuries to be revived at a more conducive time. The reasons in this story are different and the futures that Cixin Liu gives us glimpses of are varied and fascinating on this whistle-stop tour of humanity’s future.

In ‘2018-04-01’, immortality is within grasping distance with the commercialisation of gene extension treatment but, at the same time, a technological revolution is brewing. Caught between these possible futures, the unnamed protagonist contemplates the cost and what his life could be like. It’s a brief story and is both thoughtful and poignant.

‘Fire In The Earth’ reminded me in some ways of Cixin Liu’s novel ‘Ball Lighting’. You get a long way into that book before anything overtly SFnal occurs as it chiefly revolves around contemporary meteorological research for quite some time. Similarly, this story revolves around potential improvements in mining techniques, a field which I am not familiar enough with to know how much of this story is speculative. The Science Fiction comes along subtly later.

The point at which the universe will stop expanding and begin to contract has been calculated in ‘Contraction’. A group of scientists and politicians discuss physics and philosophy as they wait to witness this significant event in the kind of minimal-action yet fascinating story that Cixin Liu carries off very well.

Could a quantum computer with enough power create a model of the entire universe? In ‘Mirror’, a scientist have managed to do just that, leading to some very frightening potential consequences. This time the physics and philosophy are mixed with corruption and intrigue to weave a clever and cautionary tale.

The arrival of a giant mirror in Earth orbit that turns out to be an interstellar musician brings about a moment of earthly harmony in ‘Ode To Joy’. It’s one of Cixin Liu’s typically optimistic tales where world leaders are polite and thoughtful, which possibly makes this aspect the thing that casts the story into the realm of SF as much as the alien visitor.

War rages between Russia and NATO in ‘Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming’, a story that mixes the horrors of war with lessons on electronics. While this seemingly conventional battle rages, far above Earth, a huge Russian space station begins its trip towards solar orbit in a story that alternates between brutality and poignancy.

Another vast alien intellect visits Earth in ‘Sea Of Dreams’, this time an artist rather than a musician. The difference in scale and outlook between this visitor and the human artist it interacts with is nicely illustrated and leads to another of Cixin Liu’s grand and impressive feats of engineering.

Continuing the theme, another advanced alien intellect visits the Earth in ‘Cloud Of Poems’ and this one turns out to be a poet, leading to another of Cixin Liu’s grand and impressive feats of engineering. Despite this sounding exactly the same as the previous story, it’s actually quite a different tale and involves sapient dinosaurs, too!

In ‘The Thinker’, we meet a neurosurgeon who encounters an astronomer over a period of years in a story that could be a romance and could equally be a profound look at the mind and the universe. It’s a thoughtful end to what is quite a cerebral collection of stories.

The overall tone of the book comes across as typifying Cixin Liu’s thoughtful, measured pace. It mixes deep questions of physics and philosophy with realistic characters and touching relationships. Quirky bits of humour glimmer here and there and an overall sense of optimism prevails. It’s another fine collection that I’m grateful to be able to now read in English.

Gareth D Jones

September 2020

(pub: Head of Zeus, 2020. 337 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-83893-760-7)

check out website: www.headofzeus.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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