Review of Cixin Liu’s The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2017

ISBN: 9-781786-696717

447 pp.

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.




Review of Andy Weir’s Artemis



Andy Weir

New York, NY: Crown, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-525-57266-4

307 pp.

Andy Weir shot to fame as the result of his first book, The Martian, which became a best-seller as well as a prominent feature film. That book told the story of an unfortunate astronaut stranded on Mars when his colleagues were oblige to leave without him. The astronaut possesses reservoirs of scientific and technological knowledge and the ability to put this into useful practice through dexterity and clever innovation. The majority of the books as the man himself and his usually time-aspected rush to solve what appear to be impossibly difficult problems.

In Artemis, Weir attempts, not always successfully, to open the action to a small cast of characters, who revolve around the central character Jasmine or Jazz. Jazz is the daughter of a Saudi Arabian welder who has migrated to the eponymous city that is located on the moon. Artemis has reached the level of a modest-sized town, governed by a mayor and a man who is effectively the sheriff. Since it is very difficult to produce much in the way of consumer goods on the Moon, the citizens of Artemis are going to be reliant on imports from the Earth for the foreseeable future while being dependent on the tourism industry. It is clear from this that there is going to be a great deal of inequality in a society such as this and the signs of inequality will be evident in the possession of space and the items that be used to fill it. Jazz, of course, has very little space for herself and has also accumulated some unfortunate debts. Her answer to this predicament is to organize a modest but potentially lucrative smuggling ring. Alas, she is successful enough to reach the attention of people who can see a bigger picture and insert her into a scam which then drives the rest of the plot.

What is both the best and one of the worst things in the book is the relentless obsession with the science and engineering of living on the moon. No sentence is too short that three facts cannot be shoehorned into it and no conversation so inconsequential that it cannot be used as the vehicle for important technological knowledge:

“We reached the shelter hatch and I knocked on the small, round window. A face appeared – a man with watering eyes and ash-covered face. Most likely the foreman, who would have entered the shelter last. He gave me a thumbs-up and I returned the gesture (p.30).”

Not everyone will enjoy this style especially when it is combined with Jazz’s endless gag cracking (rather like Spiderman, whom one can imagine the author following) and the grotesquely simplistic characterisation of the remaining cast. To be honest, I am glad that I do not oblige myself to give a book marks out of ten on this site because I would have had to give quite a low one here – the dialogue is dreadful, the plot is ludicrous, the characters are irritatingly superficial and Jazz herself is the least credible female character I can remember encountering (and there have been quite a few unbelievable women in science fiction). However, the underlying nature of the book, which is an extended tour of how it would be possible to build and live in a moonbase, remains fascinating. The book would be better as a piece of fiction if it could have just involved an impersonal Jazz making a tour of Artemis while interacting with a computer but I imagine the publisher would not have been keen on such a thing. Instead, we are obliged to go along with the concept that technical competence is really the only characteristic that matters in valuing an individual and it is the principal means by which relationships may be maintained, damaged or repaired. Well, readers familiar with The Martian should know what to expect and would have no one to blame but themselves.

It will be interesting to see how, if at all, Weir develops his career from here. We have had Mars and the Moon so what will be next? A spaceship? A submarine marooned on the floor of the ocean? An asteroid? Perhaps he might be better advised to form a writing partnership (perhaps with a ghost writer – it has been known) as a means of combining the undoubted technical fireworks he has with a mode of fiction it is possible to enjoy in its own right.

Review of Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships

The Time Ships
Stephen Baxter
London: HarperVoyager, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-00-813454-9
499 pp.

The prolific science fiction writer Stephen Baxter has become known not just for his own, numerous creations but, also, for his work in recreating classics of British work. He recently had published an updated version of The War of the Worlds and this, presumably, prompted the reissue of The Time Ships, which first appeared in 1995.

Baxter has produced a sequel to the Wells original which, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal, ends with our time travelling protagonist having to abandon his beloved but quite feckless Weena to the sinister and brutish Morlocks and their (Miltonesque) underground engines. The time traveller subsequently escaped a close shave with those creatures by escaping to the far future, where he witnessed what appears to be the onset of the end of the world or, at least, of the end of humanity before returning to his own time and relating the tale to the nameless Writer. Now, the Traveller prepares to return to the future, so to speak, with a view to rescuing Weena and finding some way of living happily ever after with her in some way. However, as the back cover blurb reveals, his first intervention in the chromosphere has rather upset things and a whole new series of timelines has been introduced The Traveller has the opportunity to travel unimaginable distances in time and to witness the different and mostly unfortunate ways in which his actions have changed humanity and the other creatures encountered along the way.

Baxter does a good job of portraying the Traveller as a stiff upper lip type of chap who would do sterling work in the administration of the Empire. The world is described through his perspective and, so, it appears as a potentially dangerous place which could, nevertheless, be wrestled into submission and put to productive use with a dose of elbow grease:

“… But I knew … that my 1891, that cosy world of Richmond Hill, was lost in the fractured Multiplicity.
Well: if I could not go home, I decided, I would go on: I would follow this road of Changing, until it could take me no further! (p.349)”

It would be a little unkind to observe that there is a gap between perception and reality such as this in nearly all of Baxter’s work – his characterisation has improved over the years and has become functional, although it is hard to imagine future PhD candidates will be probing the psychological makeup and development of his characters.

The class system is deftly deployed in the spirit of the original to display the true nature of society in its various guises and the Traveller’s inherent confidence in dealing with it in the many ages of the world he has the chance to visit.
Since the Traveller was to a significant extent responsible for the new universe of divided timelines and, perhaps more importantly, because through possession of his time machine he retains agency in seeking to affect the external universe, he is kept at the heart of events by the central figures of various eras who might, one might suspect, have reason rather to resent his continued presence. Just like Wells and his ambivalent attitude towards Britain’s place and behaviour in the world, Baxter, through the Traveller, exhibits little doubt that Britain nevertheless has the central role to play in the disposition of global events. It is interesting to compare this belief with those attitudes of the others who comes to us through the prism of the Traveller’s eyes. This is all quite nicely and subtly done.

I cannot help but think that Wells would be somewhat appalled by the world today – mendacity, spiteful divisiveness, the idiocy of Brexit, all of the contemporary phenomena that destroy the sense of solidarity on which he would (class system notwithstanding) have based society. What would he make of this book? Presumably he would have been disappointed that, a century later, it would still be necessary to write it. To write about time travel in the way that he did was to call for changes to the future that he foresaw (among the Eloi and the Morlocks, which one was the bourgeoisie? An argument could be made either way). Since then, the course has been set errantly and now it might be said that we appear to be heading to hell in a handcart. Baxter, characteristically, deploys his big picture technology to address this problem using concepts not available to Wells. The approach is satisfying and the result a worthy tribute to the great man.

Review of Revenger by Alastair Reynolds


Alastair Reynolds

New York, NY: Orbit, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-316-55556-2

425 pp.

The evidence of alien life and successful human attempts to transcend planetary geography are all around the people in this swashbuckling new novel by leading science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds but, alas, our ability to take advantage of these resources has been drastically diminished by the impact of entropic ageing. Like our understanding of the people of Dark Ages Britain, who looked upon the works of the departed Romans as the products of the Age of Giants, so too does humanity consider alien artifacts with a wild surmise. Those brave pirates who are able to penetrate the artifacts (which act according to predictable although gnomic rhythms) and can bring back swag from the inside without meeting catastrophic failures might be able to live very well on the proceedings for years to come. Yet the proceeds will quickly be watered down if the crew size is too large and so the pirate captains have an incentive to minimise crew numbers by ensuring that those who are enlisted re appropriately skilled for their main function and, also, preferably with other strings to their bows. Some skills may be obtained through hard work and aptitude but others are arcane and difficult to find. Principal among these skills is bone reading. For some reason, aliens have left behind a series of extra-solar system skulls from which, given the right equipment and conditions, may be coaxed communications from across space. A good bone reader would be capable, therefore, of providing a significant competitive advantage for their captains and that leads to benefits all round.

Enter, then, our two heroines, Adrana and Fura Ness, who hail from a solid bourgeois background which they are obliged to leave and seek their fortunes among the stars. As natural bone readers, they are able to obtain employment and lodging with Captain Rockamore and his crew, where prospects seem initially bright. Alas, not all who dwell in space are well-intentioned and the Monetta’s Mourn becomes victim of a space-jacking and forced to suffer the none-too-tender ministrations of notorious pirate Bosa Sennen. This sets the course for the rest of the book and we await the eponymous ship to arrive on the scene and set things aright.

I have to admit that when I first heard of this book, my heart sank slightly. I am a fan of Reynolds and I have seen what can happen when otherwise sensible writers (e.g. China Mieville and Steven Erikson) dip into parody and would-be satire. However, Revenger does not suffer from these kinds of problems. The universe created is detailed and vivacious and the characters must take the consequences of their actions seriously. There is a pirate-like energy and roister to the action but this does not lead to childishness or superficiality. The characters provoke an emotional response and clearly change and mature as the result of their experiences. The conclusion of the novel suggests that a sequel (and perhaps more) would be possible and, if that is the case, I would be happy to read that too.

Review of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie

New York, NY: Orbit Books, 2014

ISBN: 9780316246620

It is not surprising that this book is a multiple award winner (e.g. the 2014 Hugo and Nebula novel prizes, among others) because it is an astonishing vision of a distant human future. The central figure, Breq, was once the artificial intelligence powering a giant spaceship. The complexity of operations that giant spaceships are obliged to manage requires numerous semi-autonomous mobile units and, for these, it is convenient to use the dead or, at least, the permanently sequestered. Humanity is engaged with a colonial project involves invading and conquering planets that are vexatiously rebellious. To crush the morale of the rebels, prisoners are taken and imprisoned in the holds of ships and then used as meat puppets by fractions of the ship’s mind for face-to-face conversations. This is both horrifying and apparently successful as a policy.

However, where such power is available, inevitably there will be conflict and Breq has suffered as a result. Where once she was thousands of individuals all directly linked to the central intelligence, now she is just one body and somewhat frustrated as a result. However, she is not without resources and her superior intellect has provided her with the means to obtain as much money as she needs to accomplish her goals of investigation and revenge. Still she must face the problems that all individuals face in going from place to pace and organizing transport and logistics. Along the way, she takes company with a drug-addled space cadet named Seivander who may have played a role in the central event of her life – the moment when she changed from being the Justice of Taen to becoming One-Esk – that is, the destruction of the greater part of her existence and the integrity of her memory of that event. The unlikely couple pursue the quest of understanding that is going to occupy several novels.

In addition to the science fiction background of aliens, space travel and surviving in harsh environments, this book is concerned with identity and reality. To what extent can we, as people, be assured that our existence is as we perceive it to be or do we edit and re-edit the narrative of our life to account for changes that we did not predict (which is slightly reminiscent of the guy who lives with the cat called The Lord)? What is the relationship between mind, body and consciousness? The development of these ideas is not very sophisticated so far but this may change in future episodes. However, it is quite enjoyable to find a science fiction novel in which not only does the dialogue convince but the characters have a means of development. One of the recommendations on the back cover likens the author to Iain M. Banks and this is a useful comparison. Like Banks, she can bring the almost inconceivable into fictional reality and combines humanity with acts of extraordinary wickedness. All in all, then, a terrific book and I look forward to the next episode.

Review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End


Death’s End

Cixin Liu

London: Head of Zeus Ltd., 2016

ISBN: 9781784971649

604 pp.

Translated by Ken Liu

Death’s End is the final part of Cixin Liu’s extraordinary trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem and continued with The Dark Forest. There are some spoilers in this review of these earlier books.

Humanity was challenged by the Trisolarans, whose fleet of seemingly all-powerful spaceships are inexorably speeding through the night towards earth. Advanced technology meant that a Trisolaran presence already existed and it was able to prevent humanity making any new scientific breakthroughs. To keep the alien enemies at bay, those few individuals chosen to lead the defence of their people make public the desperate danger of the Dark Forest – any species that demonstrates the ability to travel in space and allows its location to be broadcast will be destroyed by unknown aliens. It may take some time for the final strike to be made and it may be possible to make some preparations but it does appear that resistance is, ultimately, futile.

This is the situation at the beginning of Death’s End – a tense stand-off with the Trisolarans over an enormous expanse of space. One person has been designated as the Swordholder and he is the one responsible for triggering the death of the enemy’s home planet if their ships stray beyond the agreed limits. However, the Swordholder is just one person and he cannot live forever – he spends his entire life staring at the wall on which the Trisolaran ships are portrayed being ready to pull the trigger at any moment and knowing that his every moment is under scrutiny from afar. Would the next Swordholder prove to be as steadfast?

It is in this way that Cixin Liu injects humanity into the larger philosophical issues in which he seems to be so interested. This involves the comparison between what appears to be required and what the individual can provide. Of course, some part of what constitutes the individual human character depends on the experiences that person has undergone and, hence, it is necessary to show some parts of that experience. This is a slightly roundabout way of saying that this is primarily a science fiction novel of ideas in which human characters are required to tell the story but who are, otherwise, not of much interest. Readers interested in character development, insightful dialogue and so forth are likely to be somewhat disappointed. To some extent, this might be an artefact of translating Chinese into English – Ken Liu does a fine job in providing a lucid, readable text but there are so many cultural and social intonations which are difficult to get across without intrusive footnotes or other explanations that some of that content has had to be omitted. This is something of a pity but it is the action that grips on the macro-level rather than what is going to happen to individuals on the micro-level.

In fact, the initial deadlock is quite quickly resolved and the book goes on in several subsequent sections to investigate additional phases of the story. It is not giving much away to say that the narrative graduates towards the far future and includes some startling observations about the universe – not the least is the source of all the dark matter and dark energy that constitutes the cosmos but what about which we know so little. Despite this, the sense of awe and wonder that readers might have does not fade. There are still plenty of mysteries to consider.

As a trilogy, these books represent an extraordinary journey from the initially fairly small-scale issue of the nature of a bizarre and somewhat threatening video game to the conclusion so far away. While the books do hold together in a sufficiently coherent way, it is tempting to think that the author worked on the series one step at a time and did not, necessarily, have the full vision in his mind as he wrote. If this is the case, then it does not really matter since people write in different ways and the best-laid plans gang aft agley, after all. Besides which, there are such things as editors to take care of any inconsistencies and infelicities. This is terrific stuff.

Review of Peter F. Hamilton’s Night without Stars

Night without Stars
Peter F. Hamilton
London: Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-509-82039-9
XIII + 766 pp.

Peter F. Hamilton is renowned for big books about big ideas and here he does not disappoint with another journey to the distant planet Bienvenido. This is a planet we know well from earlier issues in the Chronicle of the Fallers series of which this is part (and there will evidently be at least one more to come). It is stuck in the Void, which is a mysterious region of space that has been explored previously. On the planet, the citizens have become locked in mortal combat with the Fallers, who are tree-based life forms who fall unexpectedly from the sky and take over the bodies of unsuspecting people, rendering everyone a potential enemy and generally having a negative effect on trust among people and social relations as a whole. Planetsiders have an ambivalent attitude towards the Commonwealth, which is the Earth-based intra-galactic government that appears more oppressive to some than to others. As a result, the few Commonwealth assets on Bienvenido have to act in secret.

However, there are many other actors in play here, ranging from ancient alien artifacts, human geniuses with extensively prolonged life expectancy resulting from becoming welded to a spaceship and ne’er-do-well drug dealers and thieves. A variety of characters pursue their individual storylines within the overall plot with vim and vigour. Hamilton always takes time in his narratives to describe the entirety of a society and a subset of all the kinds of people who are needed to keep it going. He is also acute about the uneven distribution of technology and the equivalent of the digital divide than can provoke, as well as the jealousy and resentment that can give rise to crime. In addition, he has a member of tropes which tend to recur and Hamilton bingo requires spotting whichever of them pop up in any particular book. Here he has the young man who gets to sleep with a woman who is well out of his league, the external observer who can see a bigger picture than any of the characters involved in the action and the corruption that might be found in the heart of the bourgeois household. There is also, of course, a lot of action and a lot of cool new technology people can use either to slice each other into pieces or for more constructive purposes. This being the Commonwealth rather than the new USA, technology is typically designed for the good of society as a whole rather than for privileged individuals and so we have trains and public transport rather than individual flying belts and civil servants who try to play be the rules rather than routinely acting the maverick beyond the reach of a rotten system. At the same time, powerful and charismatic individuals can single-handedly affect the nature of large societies.

I have read, I think, all of Hamilton’s major works and I will be happy to continue to do so as long as he cares to write them. His plots always zip along at a good pace – quickly enough that the reader is not tempted to dwell on possible plot holes – and enough of the characters are sufficiently engaging as to be enjoyable companions. I do recall him being reported as saying during the writing of his first big trilogy, The Night’s Dawn, that he made the story up as he went along and that would explain a certain shapelessness about the books individually and as series. However, this is not a serious flaw for a science fiction writer who has demonstrated the ability to keep in control of his creation. Let’s see how many more episodes he needs to write before wrapping up this chronicle.