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Interzone 278

Interzone 278 cover

The latest copy of Interzone has arrived. Issue number 278, Nov-Dec 2018.

This one does contain my review of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End the last in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.

Despite my doubts about managing to meet the time scale (the book was over 700 pages long) the review obviously did arrive on time to be included.

For Interzone 278, Maybe

The latest book for me to review for Interzone arrived this morning.

Well actually it was three books as Head of Zeus has recently published Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy in paperback and they sent me all three.

I reviewed the first two books, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, in Interzone 261 (Nov-Dec 2015) and posted that review on the blog about a year later.

The first two added up to 912 pages. I will concentrate on the third book, Death’s End, this time round. On its own it’s over 700 pages long so it may be too late for me to meet the deadline for Interzone 278. (There was a delay in the publisher sending me out the books.)

Interzone 279, then.

Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2016, 383 p. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Jan-Feb 2017.

 Invisible Planets cover

Chinese SF has been making something of a splash in the wider world of late. This volume – containing thirteen stories (bar one all award winners in China) by seven authors, four women and three men, along with three essays on the form’s Chinese incarnation – provides the opportunity to delve into its ripples but perhaps dangles an invitation to a question. Do these examples of Chinese SF exhibit traits which are specifically Chinese in nature? Is it possible to discern characteristics unique to a culture’s literary output and, within that, to its SF?

In the broad sense, surely yes. Russian literature for example has a very different feel to that written in English. So too its SF. But does Invisible Planets spread its net widely enough to allow any such judgement? (I myself, though, having noted a qualitative difference in the broad sweep of US SF as opposed to that from the UK – which was then all but solely English – and so deliberately set out to write a novel that could only have arisen from a Scottish background, might be the wrong person to ask.)

In his introduction Ken Liu specifically warns us not to expect the contents here to be monolithic, that SF from China will be as diverse in nature as that from anywhere else, and cautions us that the stories he has chosen may not be representative; though he does note that SF from Singapore, the UK and the US “are all quite different” from each other, even if there are “further divisions within and across such geographical boundaries.”

He offers us “science fiction realism” from Chen Qiufan, the self-proclaimed “porridge SF” (neither “hard” nor “soft” – the terms apparently have slightly different meanings in China where hard refers to the inclusion of more technical material) of Xia Jia, “wry, political metaphors” from Ma Boyong, the “surreal imagery” of Tang Fei, “dense language-pictures” from Cheng Jingbo, the “fabulism and sociological speculation” of Hao Jingfang and Cixin Liu’s “hard science-fictional imagination”. Apart from Cixin Liu, most of the authors (whose names are all rendered in Chinese style, family name first) are “rising stars” and all work in professions.

The fiction starts with three stories from Chen Qiufan (Stanley Chan.) The Year of the Rat sees an unemployed graduate forced to join the Rodent-Control Force dealing with the genetically engineered NeoratsTM infesting the Chinese countryside. In The Fish of Lijiang, people exposed to time dilation or compression require occasional readjustment which they obtain by meeting up with those of the yin tendency to their yang. Body films, patches which express personality in response to muscular tension or temperature, feature in The Flower of Shazui which reworks the old tale of a man fascinated by a prostitute who is beyond his reach. She nevertheless requires his help.

Xia Jia also makes three appearances. In the at times dream-like A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight foundling Ning is the sole living inhabitant of a village of ghosts whose days as a tourist attraction are gone. He nevertheless does not age beyond seven. Tongtong’s Summer sees Tongtong’s grandfather needing care after a fall. This comes in the shape of Ah Fu, a robot controlled from afar via a telepresence body-suit. Soon grandfather is interacting remotely with others in his position. Packed with invocations of opposites and apparently inspired by the poem “With Dreams as Horses” by Hai Zi, Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse (a story original to this book) sees the dragon-horse awaken after centuries to a world long bereft of humans. It meets a bat and they travel together telling each other stories.

Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence might be taken to be a reflection of Chinese experience in its depiction of a time when web access and everyday discourse is restricted to only allowable words but its explicit reference to Orwell’s 1984 (and implicit one to Fahrenheit 451) implies a wider relevance. The inevitable attempts to circumscribe the rules lead to an ever narrowing list of healthy words. Marring this slightly was that some aspects of the story were seen from our frame of reference rather than its.

Hao Jingfang has two contributions. Invisible Planets uses a Scheherazade type storyteller (without the jeopardy) describing fantastical planets and their inhabitants to suggest how both interactions with others and experiencing stories can change us. Her Hugo Award winning Folding Beijing sees that city – out to the sixth ring road – as a kind of time share, with three Spaces taking turns in occupying the ground over two days before the cycle recurs. During two such Changes Third Space denizen Lao Dao, wishing to earn enough money for his daughter to attend kindergarten, makes the dangerous journey to take a message to the less crowded and much wealthier First Space.

Xiaoyi is the fifteen year-old titular character in Call Girl by Tang Fei. It isn’t sex she sells, though, but stories related to her ability to manipulate space and time. Cheng Jingbo’s Grave of the Fireflies is an almost indescribable admix of fairy tale – princesses, magicians – and end of the universe SF – the stars are going out – in five sequential sections headed three successively apart days in February yet spanning centuries.

We round off with two stories from Liu Cixin. The Circle is a reworking of a chapter from his Hugo winning novel The Three Body Problem. An ancient Chinese mathematician develops a binary calculating machine utilising soldiers carrying flags. In Taking Care of God two billion members of the God civilisation which created the conditions for life on Earth and oversaw its development are deposited on the planet’s surface from a horde of ageing spaceships. In exchange for the Gods’ knowledge their wellbeing is catered for by billeting each of them on a family. Inevitably tensions ensue. Their science turns out to be too far advanced to be intelligible and their daily habits tend to forgetfulness. There are echoes here of Aldiss’s Heresies of the Huge God, Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God and a touch of Leinster’s The Greks Bring Gifts. (Whether Liu was aware of, or even intended, these cannot be judged from a distance.)

The three concluding essays delve into various aspects of Chinese SF. Liu Cixin’s “Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction” covers SF’s century-long history in China, its original incarnation optimistic, its later role in the People’s Republic era where it was seen as being only for children, to be educative about technology, the startling absence of Communist Utopias within its purview, its new-found literary credentials and confidence, all as a lead-in to explaining the origins of the pessimistic vision imbuing his trilogy.

Chen Qiufan’s “The Torn Generation” contrasts the anxiety of the younger generation with the thoughtlessness of the older. “Faced with the absurd reality of contemporary China the writer cannot fully explore or express the possibilities of extreme beauty and ugliness without resorting to science fiction.” These are not strictures necessarily confined to China.

In the final essay, where Xia Jia tries to answer the question asked of her at a convention “What Makes Chinese SF Chinese?” she covers some of the same historical background as Liu Cixin, saying the breakaway from science-popularisation was motivated by binary oppositions such as China-the West, underdeveloped-developed, tradition-modernity, and concludes that while the Chinese SF community is full of internal differences she does find some commonality as the stories are written primarily for a Chinese audience, but, “Perhaps Western readers can also read Chinese science fiction and experience an alternative Chinese modernity and be inspired to imagine an alternative future.” Alternative futures. Any SF reader will drink to that.

But it’s the stories that matter. All here work well as SF. Their characters behave as characters do, with love, jealousy, resentment, tenacity, fear, and loathing. Apart from references to aspects of Chinese daily life and culture they could easily have originated from non-Chinese sources. Taken in all, however, I did note a tendency to didacticism, a leaning towards the fantastical, an awareness of contrasting opposites, an air of detachment. None of that would make them uniquely Chinese, though, and whether or not Chinese SF really is a creature all to itself, on this evidence it’s certainly worth reading.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- “the fiction written in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all quite different” (is all quite different,) interpretive (interpretative,) one of the China’s most elite colleges (one of China’s,) maw for mouth rather than stomach, Xian Quan (Xiao Quan,) hid (hidden,) “When seven words had been deleted, Arvardan knew it was Sunday. (Only if he’d started on a Sunday.) The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight, (is slightly clumsy; balanced in weight?) “has to transfer buses three times to get there” (has to change buses? Has to take three different buses?) “archers loosened volleys from their bows” (loosed volleys.)”There were a total” (there was a total.)

The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem, Head of Zeus, 2015, 400 p, translated from the Chinese 三體, Chongqing Publishing Group 2006, by Ken Liu. The Dark Forest, Head of Zeus, 2015, 512 p, translated from the Chinese 黑暗森林, Chongqing Publishing Group 2008, by Joel Martinsen. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015.

 The Three-Body Problem cover

Barring Verne and the genre’s very beginnings, non-Anglophone SF has historically had a low profile in its heartlands. Some Eastern European SF did manage to filter across the language barrier during the Iron Curtain days but was usually a niche commodity. That situation has recently begun to change markedly with SF emanating from outwith the usual source countries. Though not all from non-Anglophone sources, in the past few years I have been able to sample SF originating from Japan, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Nigeria and other former colonial states. Now, aided by Puppygate and its unintended consequence of a best novel Hugo Award for Cixin Liu, his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy looks set to raise the profile of Chinese Science Fiction; which on this evidence comprises hard SF, red in tooth and claw (though arguably not red in political terms.)

The first book, The Three-Body Problem, begins during the Cultural Revolution when Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, a physicist unwilling to bend to the doctrine that the theories which underpin his subject are reactionary, at the hands of Red Guards. Ye herself is sent to a labour camp and further blots her copybook when she reads Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and pens a letter to the authorities about the environmental depredations resulting from the work of her labour corps but due to her capabilities as a physicist she is assigned to Red Coast Base, an apparently military endeavour.

There is then a jump of forty years in the narrative and we are plunged into a world where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is co-opted into a Battle Command Centre – a committee whose members comprise not only Chinese but also NATO generals plus the unorthodox but effective cop Shi Qiang. The world faces a threat (at this point unspecified) related to the fact that physicists are killing themselves as their experimental results are not consistent, leading them to the conclusion that physics varies from place to place and so does not exist. Shi Qiang warns Wang always to look behind the surfaces of things to find the deeper connections.

Strange things begin to happen to Wang; he sees a countdown on his photographs and then on his eyes. This stops when he ceases his research. His wider investigations lead him to an online game at www.3body.net, the playing of which requires a haptic feedback suit, and which is set on a curious world with unreliable sunrises and sunsets, Stable and Chaotic Eras, mysterious flying stars and inhabitants who can dehydrate and rehydrate according to the conditions. Each time he logs into it the game’s history has moved on. He works out the planet has three suns whose orbits form an inherently chaotic configuration. This is Trisolaris. In one of the novel’s structural problems the relevance of this game to the ongoing threat is not revealed till later.

We subsequently find Red Coast was actually a site for SETI investigations and Ye Wenjie had used its antenna – via the sun as a signal amplifier – to send a message to the universe. A reply containing a warning of invasion if Earth responds came from only four light years away and therefore must have originated on Alpha Centauri. The disillusioned Ye, convinced that humanity’s relationship to evil is like the iceberg to the ocean (made of the same material) ignores the warning. Meanwhile a secretive Earth Trisolaran Organisation, ETO, has recruited devotees via 3-body and communicated with the Trisolarans who have developed Project Sophon, the unfolding of protons into different dimensions, to shoot a quantum entangled pair at Earth to completely ruin scientific research and seal off the progress of human science. The Alpha Centauri system of course contains three suns.

The trouble is we are told a lot of this via the medium of 3-body and transcripts of Trisolaran transmissions – most of which content is dry as dust. Human interactions are sidelined, the main instigator of ETO, Mike Evans, advocate of Pan-Species Communism, barely appears in the novel and the chronology of the events is disjointed. While Wang’s nanomaterials background comes in useful in obtaining the Trisolaran transcripts the incident concerned is really the only one which occurs in the novel’s here-and-now.

In his translator’s afterword Ken Liu refers to Chinese fiction having different emphases and preferences “compared to what American readers expect”. Whether this explains the oddness of The Three-Body Problem’s structure the non-Chinese reader cannot tell. And nothing is resolved, the whole is merely a prologue.

 The Dark Forest cover

In The Dark Forest the narrative is much more linear. Earth has 450 years to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion but is now riddled with sophons, making all transactions transparent to Trisolaris. The UN has set up a Planetary Defence Council which initiates the Wallfacer Project whereby four individuals are given more or less absolute power to command resources to further the anti-Trisolaran plans devised in their own minds, (the sophons cannot read thoughts). One character muses, “I wonder whether we could find a form of communication that only humans can comprehend, but which the sophons never will. That way, humanity can be free of sophon monitoring…… A gaze or a smile can transmit so much information!”

The first part of the book follows the progress of the Wallfacers’ plans, the setting up and development of Earth’s space forces and the societal changes which take place under the Trisolaran threat. “Behind them was the Golden Age, the good times that began in the 1980s and ended with the Crisis. Ahead of them, humanity’s arduous years were about to unfold.”

The disparity in force between Earth and Trisolaris is the biggest in human history, defeatism the worst enemy – especially in the space forces. Escapism, the thought of leaving Earth for the wide blue yonder, appeals to some but is soon made illegal as who goes and who remains involves basic human values no matter who gets to leave – elites, the rich, or ordinary people. So long as some will be left behind, it means the collapse of humanity’s ethical value system. One character says, “The fundamental axiom of economics is the human mercenary instinct. Without that assumption, the entire field would collapse. There isn’t any fundamental axiom for sociology yet, but it might be even darker than economics. A small number of people could fly off into space, but if we knew it would come to that, why would we have bothered in the first place?”

There are still occasional forays into 3-body where we find Trisolaris has designated a Wallbreaker to each Wallfacer, to frustrate or reveal their plans.

Curiously – or is this an endemic Chinese habit? – smoking seems to be commonplace in this future even when we have again jumped in time to year 205 of the Crisis Era, after a minor Dark Age called the Great Ravine has more than halved Earth’s population. Most cities are now underground.

The narrative contains a few potential sense of wonder moments. Giant space telescopes, the seeding of space with oil film, “mined” from Neptune’s rings, to reveal the tracks of Trisolaran probes, a space battle which came over eerily like an updated version of E E ‘Doc’ Smith, and other Science Fictional concepts such as the technology to fix beliefs in the human brain. However, there are times when the info dumping can be intrusive and strange interludes such as when Liu allows his characters to discourse on the writing process, “The highest level of literary creation is when the characters in a novel possess life in the mind of the writer. The writer is unable to control them. But today’s practitioners of literature have lost that creativity,” and the nature of the object of love, “not the man or woman of reality, but what he or she is like in their imagination.”

Key to the book are two maxims, “Survival is the primary need of civilization” and, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant,” plus the related concepts of chains of suspicion and technology explosion.

The Dark Forest bristles with SF ideas while remixing the tropes of First Contact, Generation Starship and disaster tale but these elements sometimes sit uneasily with the stories of the humans involved. Its title’s metaphor encapsulates a bleak explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Both these novels contain footnotes, mostly to explain specifically Chinese references. Footnotes can be a delight but SF readers are used to neologisms – sometimes unexplained. Their necessity in either book is therefore arguable – and in the cases of Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, tokamaks, the strong nuclear interaction and Lagrange point, surely superfluous.

However, together they both suggest Chinese SF has been neglected in the wider world for far too long.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- ahold (a hold,) meet-up (meeting,) to not have heard(not to have heard,) we get tori (correct for the plural of torus) but tetrahedrons instead of tetrahedra, in a 3body argument with “Liebniz”, “Newton” is heard to refer to calculus (Isaac Newton called his system fluxions, calculus was Liebniz’s name for these mathematical functions,) sunken (sunk,) Wallfacers (Wallfacer, singular,) widow (window,) in The Dark Forest the base is called Red Shore (in The Three-Body Problem it was Red Coast,) gasses (gases,) “you only would have” (you would only have,) automatons (automata,) Jupiter is referred to as a liquid planet – it’s a gas giant, impassible (impassable,) shape of sword (shape of a sword,) 120gs (a measurement unit’s abbreviation subsumes its plural so 120g,) miniscule (minuscule,) become (became,) torturous (the context implies tortuous,) off of, use to (used to, x 3.)

The Paper Menagerie (and other stories)

 The Paper Menagerie and other stories cover

My latest review book for Interzone has arrived.

It is a book of stories by US author of Chinese descent, Ken Liu. The collection is called The Paper Menagerie and other stories. The review is to appear in Interzone 264, May-Jun 2016.

Despite his award winning status (US SF awards for short fiction tend to pass my attention by) I was not previously familiar with Liu’s work in his own right but he did translate Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem which I reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015, in conjunction with Cixin Liu’s follow-up The Dark Forest (though that was translated by Joel Martinsen.) That joint review will appear here in due course.

Interzone Reviews

 The Three-Body Problem cover
 The Dark Forest cover

You may have noticed on my “currently reading” sidebar a few days ago the cover of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. This was the book which only made it onto the final ballot for this year’s Hugo Award for best novel as a result of Puppygate yet won the award – a first for Chinese Science Fiction.

Shortly to appear on that sidebar is the sequel to that novel, The Dark Forest, also for review in Interzone – a combined review over the two books. (I see that cover has the translator’s name as Joel Martinson. In the text it’s spelled Martinsen.)

These are the first two books in a trilogy properly known as Remembrance of Earth’s Past but popularly known in China as The Three-Body Problem.

My copy of Interzone 260 with its review of Gene Wolfe’s A Borrowed Man came through the letter box a week or so ago.

2015 Hugo Awards

Old news now I suppose. The results are here.

The Hugo Awards are, or at least have been, arguably the most prestigious in Science Fiction.

This year is notable for “No Award” coming first in five of the categories: thus equalling the total of “No Award” for all previous winners in the entire history of the Hugos. This would therefore be an odd phenomenon.

The explanation, for those who are unaware of the stushie, is that two groups of fans calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies tried to game the system by creating lists of recommendations in the various categories and asking those of like mind to nominate these and vote for them in the final ballot. All of which is perfectly within the rules.

The beef of the puppies appears to be (I summarise) that they think the Hugos have in recent years been taken over by political correctness with people of colour, other minorities and women being (in their view) disproportionately represented on award lists. One faction of the puppies ascribes this as due to the actions of what they call “Social Justice Warriors.”

Another viewpoint is that since they failed to win in previous years the Puppies are just bad losers.

An overview of the controversy is here.

The Puppies claim that the stories which have been winning have been unreadable. This is certainly not true of last year’s novel winner Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I have this year’s novel winner The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Cixin Liu sitting on my bed-side cabinet awaiting reading for review in Interzone. I understand that had another nominee, put on the Puppies’ list without the author’s agreement, not withdrawn from the contest The Three-Body Problem would not have made it to the final ballot. This looks ironic given the Puppies’ view of minorities. (In Hugo terms a Chinese author is definitely a member of a minority.)

To counter the Puppy strategy some people had advocated voting “No Award” in every category in this year’s ballot. Quickly scanning the results it seems to me that the voters have taken their responsibilities seriously. The nuclear option of blanket “No Award” has been eschewed. Instead “No Award” seems to have been used in the sense for which it was intended; that if the voters considered no nominee merited the award they placed “No Award” first, otherwise they placed it after nominations considered worthy.

It may be, though, that the Hugo Awards are now damaged beyond repair.

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