Fiction Reviews

Hold Up the Sky

(2020) Cixin Liu, Ad Astra – Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 335pp, ISBN 978-1-838-93760-7


.This book features eleven stories by Cixin Liu, each ranging from nine to fifty six pages. The stories were written between 1999 and 2017 and have been translated from the original Chinese by Adam Lanphier, Joel Martinsen, John Chu, and Carmen Yiling Yan.

‘The Village Teacher’ tells of how, somewhere in the poorest part of very rural China, a teacher is dying. He could have afforded the necessary medical treatment were it not that he had spent all his money keeping the school open. Meanwhile the war between the Carbon Federation and the Silicon-based Empire has been raging for twenty thousand years and the defensive line could devastate Earth. Will the Carbon Federation think Earth is worth protecting?

In ‘The Time Migration’ we follow the exploits of eighty million people as they head into the future, frozen for one hundred and twenty years in the hope that they will wake in a better world. When the Ambassador is woken she finds that the world has become worse and decides they should stay frozen for a while longer. When she is next awakened, the world has changed greatly and they would be second class citizens, unable to integrate into society. How much further must she take her people into the future? For how long will the equipment still work?

‘2018-04-01’ is set on April Fool’s Day and, as a colleague plays a trick, a young man considers whether he should go for Gene Reforming Life-Extension Technology. It is very expensive but it could mean he will live three hundred years. But where can he get the money? And what of his girlfriend?

Liu Xin is the son of a coal miner and his story is told in ‘Fire in the Earth’. Watching his father die from a lifetime of breathing the polluted atmosphere of the mine, he determines that no-one should need to go down mines again. But how else to get the necessary energy from coal without digging it up? And what are the risks?

In ‘Contraction’ the evidence is beyond refute; the expansion of the universe is slowing down after the Big Bang and soon it will begin to contract. But what exactly will that mean? Professor Ding Yi has a deeper understanding of space-time than anyone else.

Investigator Chen Xufeng is perplexed in ‘Mirror’; the person he is after is always one step ahead of him. Even as he is explaining to the Senior Official that he is unable to find a mole in his team, he receives a phone call telling him there is no mole. It seems his quarry can see and hear everything he does, no matter where he is. Deliberately walking into a trap he knows is there, Bai Bing explains to Chen and the Senior Official that he has stolen a superstring computer, a machine so powerful that it can model the universe down to each atom; it does not predict the future but it knows the entirety of the past, right up to less than a second ago. Bai Bing has created a mirror of the real world, in which he can see all - to him there is no such thing as a secret meeting, no such thing as secrets that stay hidden. The Senior Official is extremely worried about the impact this device will have on society and wonders what he can do about it.

‘Ode to Joy’ opens on the lawn outside the General Assembly building of the United Nations, where the heads of state have gathered for a concert. As the Chinese president gazes up into the night sky he spots something strange - the Southern Cross. They realise that they are looking at a reflection of the southern skies and soon they discover the reason - a gigantic mirror in space. Astronauts investigate and find that it has no thickness; it is a massless field which produces perfect reflections from each side. “I am a musician” it says, and it has come to play at the concert.

We find ourselves in war-torn Russia in ‘Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming’. After a period of growing tensions, the NATO countries have attacked and, despite their much greater numbers, the Russians are loosing. Whilst the physical weaponry is about the same on both sides, the NATO forces have much better systems for electronic warfare; they can track their enemy more precisely, they can identify and hit targets from over a thousand miles away, and attempts to block them are ineffective. The attrition rate is such that the Russians are close to loosing entirely. Marshal Levchenko decides that the answer is to unleash total electronic jamming; although his forces will loose all their tactical displays and communication, their enemies will also loose theirs - and they are more reliant on them. The tide turns as the NATO forces sink into confusion, though it will be only for a while as once they can locate the sources of the jamming they can eliminate them. Misha, son of the Marshal, is aboard the Russian science station Vechnyy Buran as it orbits the Sun near Mercury and he has an idea.

‘Sea of Dreams’ introduces us to another strange alien. Yan Dong has just finished her contribution to the Ice and Snow Arts Festival when a giant ball of ice hurtles down from the sky, stopping just before her. ‘I am a low-temperature artist’ it announces, and it has been attracted by the Festival. Originating from somewhere in a cloud of dark matter between galaxies, the alien has an understanding of physics and force fields far beyond ours. It too intends to create a work of art from ice, but its creation will be immense and it will need all the water in all the oceans. How human life will survive afterwards is of no consequence - art is art.

We meet more aliens in ‘Cloud of Poems’. Yi Yi is sailing across the South Pacific, heading for the South Pole, from where they will be able to view the Cloud of Poems. This is not Earth as we know it for they are inside the hollow planet; the oceans and the landmasses are on the inner surface of the shell that is now the Earth. His two companions are Bigtooth and Li Bai. We learn that the dinosaurs, in the form of the Devouring Empire, returned to Earth after many millions of years, subjugated it, and pillaged it. When a god, or to be more exact a far more advanced creature, arrives, the dinosaur emissary Bigfoot makes a present to it of the human poet Yi Yi. It does not go according to plan; Yi Yi has a way with words and convinces the god that even it cannot match the unsurpassable classical poetry of Li Bai. To prove him wrong, the god takes on the form of a version of Li Bai and develops a passion for poetry, which proves to have a dramatic effect on the future of both humans and the Devouring Empire.

In ‘The Thinker’ a doctor treats an emergency case at the Mount Siyun Astronomical Observatory. Whilst there he gets talking to another of the astronomers, who explains that she is researching the ways in which stars twinkle. Some years later he finds himself back at the observatory and talking to the same astronomer; as she explains how much she has learnt about the various patterns of twinkling since his first visit, they realise that the twinkles from Alpha Centauri are identical to those from the sun if one takes account of the time light takes to travel from one to the other and back. Further research concludes that stars are somehow communicating with each other. Does it mean that the universe is thinking?

This is the fourth book I have read by Cixin Liu and again his imagination impressed me. Again though, I felt that the stories, especially the longer ones, had a tendency to plod to their ends. The writing was good throughout and many of the descriptions conjured up convincing images in my mind, but sometimes characters got into technical discussions that went on too long and removed pace from the story. The cover notes that the New Yorker describes the author as ‘China’s answer to Arthur C. Clarke’ and I would have to agree. Clarke’s earlier works concentrated so much on the science that the story was hardly there and it took him a while to learn how to write stories that balanced ideas, imagination, pace, and style, becoming one of the great writers of science fiction. It seems to me that Cixin Liu still needs to find that spark of style that takes his stories from being very good in terms of their ideas and plots through to ‘adventures’ which are told by a story teller who holds his audiences spellbound.

Despite my thoughts on his flat style of writing, these are stories of imagination, stories that take you to places you would not have thought of, stories of true science fiction. They are stories worth reading.

Peter Tyers


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