The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu (book review).

After reading Cixin Liu’s ‘Three-Body’ trilogy last year and subsequently meeting him in person for an interview, I have been looking forward to reading his first translated short fiction collection, ‘The Wandering Earth’. Three of his short stories were published in English in the Ken Liu edited volume ‘Invisible Planets’, but only one of those appears among the ten stories in this volume, half of which have won the prestigious Galaxy Award in China. Cixin Liu’s style is immediately recognisable and I recall taking some time to get used to his somewhat formal prose when starting on ‘The Three-Body problem’. There are lengthy sections of explanatory dialogue and background information that might normally be considered info-dumping but Cixin Liu blends these nicely into his fascinating futures in a consciously authoritative way and carries it off with conviction. The first story soon accustomed me to his manner once more so that I could focus on story rather than style.

‘The Wandering Earth’ kicks of the collection with epic scale and gigantic engineering projects immediately reminiscent of the second and third ‘Three-Body’ books. With the threat of the sun’s demise, humanity embarks on an ambitious project to take Earth out of solar orbit and head for a new home. The technological, geological and social impacts of the various stages of this project are given equal attention with a fine balance between the personal experience of the main character and the large-scale reactions of the masses.

‘Mountain’ is one of several stories where the everyday life of the main character intersects with an alien visitation. As in several of Cixin Liu’s stories, rather than a tale of invasion and destruction, this visit is a chance to meet and learn about an alien culture. Feng Fan’s fixation on mountains leads him to be the sole human to interact with an alien species with a profoundly different origin to our own. The story brought to mind Greg Egan’s ‘Incandescence’, though with less maths, Ted Chiang’s ‘Exhalation’ and a hint of Tony Ballantyne’s ‘Blood And Iron’. It’s another opportunity for lengthy exposition, but only becomes more and more fascinating as it progresses.

Another macro-engineering project takes centre stage in ‘Sun Of China’, but with the personal tale of Shui Wah’s progress from impoverished villager as the background that gives this a nicely grounded feel, making it a story about an ordinary man, as are most of Cixin Liu’s protagonists, rather than a heroic astronaut.

‘For The Benefit Of Mankind’ sees the arrival of not one but two alien races in the skies of Earth, whose orbiting ships light up the dark world of professional assassin Smoothbore as he takes on an unusual contract amid an uncertain future. Again, this invasion is not what it seems and once more we are treated to the story of another, oddly familiar, culture.

In an unusual twist, Cixin Liu appears as a character in his own story in apocalyptic computer virus tale ‘Curse 5.0’. The eponymous virus becomes more and more destructive as it goes through various iterations and Cixin Liu the character waxes philosophical about how his visions of literary destruction are not as terrible as experiencing the real thing. This line came back to mind in several of the other stories of destruction on a planetary scale in this collection.

I’m not sure if it’s a Chinese habit or whether it is Cixin Liu’s own penchant for giving every period of history a defining name as an Era. It’s something he does in several stories and indeed in the title of the next story, ‘The Micro-Era’. Earth has been laid waste again in this tale of a lone interstellar explorer returning from the expanse to discover what has become of the human race. We’re treated to another extrapolation of the laws of physics, this time in the field of nanotechnology and what life would be like if we were really small.

In ‘Devourer’, Earth faces destruction again at the hands of a vast invading spaceship populated by lizards. There were several concepts here that reminded me of parts of ‘Three-Body’ and I wondered whether this had been a test run for some of those ideas. In last year’s interview, he made the point that he prefers now to write novels to allow the space to fully develop his concepts and the size of some of his ideas in this book could certainly support a much larger-scale story.

‘Taking Care Of God’ takes a couple of Science Fiction’s classic tropes, alien invasion and the seeding of life on Earth, and ties them in with traditional Chinese values of respect for elders, family loyalty and hospitality. The impact of two billion geriatric aliens settling on Earth as their care-home creates a difficult situation for the planet and is played out through the eyes of one rural family in a touching and wryly amusing story.

In the future portrayed in ‘With Her Eyes’, large numbers of workers in space who can’t afford to return to Earth regularly can take a vacation via multisensory glasses that allow them to experience what their host on Earth does. The rather intense experience of one hitchhiker leads to a heart-stoppingly powerful conclusion.

The previous story seems to be referred to in part in the volume’s final story ‘Canonball’. Some of Cixin Liu’s favourite themes return: a macro-engineering project scientifically explained but sprinkled with small-scale stories of how individuals were affected and a large-scale narrative of the effects on society. As usual, it finishes with a delicate balance of optimism and despair and rounds out the collection nicely.

It’s a wonderful collection, particularly for fans of hard SF and brings Cixin Liu’s own unique flavour to the genre. Repeating themes of alien invasion, global destruction and man-made disasters are portrayed in human terms and, even in the face of extinction, they often present a ray of optimism. Later in the year, ‘Ball Lightning’ will be published in English, continuing the welcome opportunities to enjoy the works of China’s best-known Science Fiction author.

Gareth D Jones

June 2017

(pub: Head Of Zeus. 447 page hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78497-849-5)

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