The Wandering Earth
London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017
Translated by Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier and Holger Nahm
Cixin Liu rose to prominence in the western world after publication of the translated trilogy which began with The Three Body Problem (each of which is reviewed elsewhere on this site). In those books, Liu showed his propensity to create science fiction on the very broadest of levels in terms of both time and space – in English, Stephen Baxter would be a writer often working on the same scale. Yet Liu’s vision is very bleak and he rarely permits the occasional breath of optimism that Baxter will allow from time to time. Instead, all ventures seem to lead to failure and the deaths of millions. Failure is often plucked from the jaws of a victory that a stroke of unexpected genius might just have achieved. The genius may not be named – in one of the stories in this collection of mostly earlier works, an unspecified ‘captain’ rises from the crowd to represent humanity in the endless and relentlessly unequal struggle against implacable alien enemies and the unforgiving physics of this universe. This is not a book or, indeed, an author for readers who are only satisfied by a happy ending.
Cixin Liu is partial to the examination of large-scale change in societies under conditions of profound stress, such as the knowledge that an unstoppable death machine is approaching the Earth and will arrive to destroy it in a fixed period. He discusses societies n different forms of ‘depression’ as a result. It is tempting to consider this to be a form of Chinese characteristic that might also be present in some other East Asian states that exhibit Confucian influence. It is quite common for him to portray people behaving as part of a collective in a way that seems much less likely in western work, which would tend to emphasise the more diverse forms of behaviour that individualism is thought to demonstrate. It is also difficult to imagine a western author describing characters who have just received an enormous trove of alien, far-future knowledge as rejoicing as this would mean Communism could be embedded in society permanently. However, this viewpoint does contribute to the critique of capitalism in its various forms that occasionally may be seen – particularly in the case of the Last Capitalist, who owns the entire world. It also means a certain lack of sensual detail, so that the deaths of millions in cosmic disasters take place without much in the way of sound and vision.
These are quite substantial pieces. There are ten stories in the 447 pages of text and most of them are composed of multiple episodes, which are used to advance the story on an often epic scale. In The Wandering Earth, for example, the title suggests it is not really a spoiler to reveal that as a result of another cosmic crisis the Earth is forcibly detached from its orbit around the Sun and sent off to seek its future as an independent body. There are various phases of the odyssey to consider and so each receives its own episode. The same structure displays the progress of an otherwise unexceptional man from a small village to becoming a spiderman (who clean the windows of large skyscrapers – presumably spiderwomen exist somewhere) and then on into space. These are stories that, in other words, depend on the ability of the intellectual content to engage the mind of the reader rather than in the characterisation or the language. This issue is exacerbated by the nature of the translation. There are five translators in all but the stories overall display a high level of consistency in terms of language that might be characterised as functional without being exciting. I cannot really think of a text written in Chinese that has been rendered into English in a dense and poetic manner and without footnotes and perhaps this is not the place to look for the first. Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating book which will please many readers of hard science fiction and those who are interested in thinking about what we might do if faced by the sudden appearance of hostile aliens wielding effortlessly superior technology.