Fiction Reviews

The Wandering Earth

(2017) Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 447pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97849-5


I will say one thing for Cixin Liu, he thinks big. Although told from the viewpoint of individuals, the main character in many of these stories is ultimately the planet Earth and its fate. And what stories they are - he certainly does not lack imagination. Described as the first collection of his short fiction, the book contains ten stories averaging about forty pages each, so most of them are novelettes or novellas.

In the title story ‘The Wandering Earth’ scientists have discovered that the Sun is processing hydrogen into helium much faster than previously thought; our sun will turn from a yellow dwarf into a red giant not in several billion years time but in just a few centuries. The technology to create the giant generation ships needed to evacuate the Earth for an unknown destination simply does not exist and cannot possibly be developed in time; instead they come up with a daring plan - take the Earth itself to Alpha Centauri and park it in that sun’s Goldilocks zone. (I told you the author thinks big!) To achieve this feat, thousands of Earth Engines are built, each producing vast plumes of plasma to thrust the planet on its way and eventually the Earth stops spinning and departs its orbit. This, of course, comes at a great price; the population retreats into underground cities whilst first massive tidal waves sweep across the planet destroying lower lying areas and wiping out the surface cities and then the stresses on the planet’s crust cause earthquakes and volcanoes. As the planet freezes the engines accelerate it to 0.5% light-speed. If all goes well, they will arrive in two and half thousand years.

‘Mountain’ tells of Feng Fan, a mountaineer turned geological engineer on an oceanographic vessel. A vast spaceship approaches the Earth and, dropping into a geo-stationary orbit, its gravitational pull proves sufficient to pull the ocean towards it. The resulting peak is almost thirty thousand feet high, the highest mountain on Earth. Whilst everyone else retreats from this terrible phenomena with its self-generated cyclones, Feng Fan borrows a small boat and heads towards it - it will be the climb of his life, even it is made entirely of water. Reaching the summit, he finds that the alien ship had spotted intelligent life on its way past the Solar System and simply stopped by for a chat; the aliens want to tell him of their history.

In ‘Sun of China’ Shui Wah leaves his village for a better life, eventually arriving in Beijing. He discovers he has an excellent head for heights and becomes a very well paid ‘spiderman’, a window cleaner on high-rise buildings. Meanwhile, the China Sun has been launched, a giant solar reflector which, with its ability to the control weather all over the country, revolutionises agriculture. The reflector has a problem, though: it collects dust and people are needed to clean it. And so Shui Wah heads into space.

Smoothbore is an assassin of the highest order and ‘For The Benefit Of Mankind’ tells of his most unusual contract. Normally his targets are the rich or powerful, people that others want removed, but this time he has been employed to kill poor people. Mind you, aliens known simply as the Elder Brothers have arrived and there are changes afoot if humanity is to survive.

‘Curse 5.0’ concerns a computer virus written by a talented young programmer to get back at her ex-boyfriend, Sa Bi. Curse 1.0 spread across the world and simply displayed the message ‘>Go Die, Sa Bi! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !’. The code was well hidden within the operating system and things would have been OK but it is in the nature of hackers that somebody found the code and extended it. By version 3.0 it had become vicious and entreated any computer that recognised Sa Bi to actually kill him (such as by causing his car to crash). By version 5.0 it had become so weaponised that everyone was threatened. Interestingly, one of the hackers is named Cixin Liu.

‘The Micro-Era’ tells of how the Forerunner returns to Earth after thousands of years. Knowing that in a several thousand years time the Sun would produce an energy flash that would wipe out all life on the planet, mankind had sent explorers out into the galaxy to find it a new home. After an unsuccessful twenty-three years of near-light speed travel, the UNS Ark One returns to the Solar System to find that twenty-five thousand years have passed and the catastrophe has happened. The Forerunner is surprised to receive a radio message as his ship approaches the devastated planet - mankind has survived! Landing on the planet he finds that survival was at the expense of size; all human life is now microscopic.

In ‘Devourer’ a crystal ship arrives from Epsilon Eridani bearing the recorded message that the Devourer has destroyed their planet and is now heading to Earth. The lizard life forms on the giant vessel travel from planet to planet, stripping it of all its minerals, water, and so forth, on a never-ending voyage. With this warning, could mankind be the first to fend off the aliens?

‘Taking Care Of God’ tells of an ancient race; they created the life on planet Earth but they are now tired and worn out and are looking for somewhere to retire. At first the world thinks they will bring great knowledge and, in a way, they do - but it is so advanced that we do not have the understanding, let alone the technology, to use any of it. Furthermore, the millions of Gods, most of them billeted with families across the world, prove to be almost useless having become totally reliant millions of years ago on their technologies to look after them. Far from helping mankind, they are a burden.

Told in the first person, ‘With Her Eyes’ introduces us to the idea of vessels which voyage through our planet itself. Our unnamed character has been granted a holiday on Earth, a few days to wander alone in the wilderness, provided he wears a special pair of glasses. Given the tremendous cost of returning to Earth, many can only experience our home by surrogate visits, by means of watching through another’s ‘eyes’. His ‘passenger’ is in awe of what she sees but after a while he finds her demands to see ‘this’ and ‘that’ quite annoying; only at the end does he realise that she is the sole survivor of the Sunset 6, a broken terracraft trapped forever in the centre of the Earth, and these are the last images she will ever see.

The final story, ‘Cannonball’, continues with the theme of terracraft and travelling through the Earth. Shen Huabei invents a super-dense state of matter, which he calls new-solid-state; in time, this allows incredible materials to be developed. It allows the building of a tunnel straight through the middle of the planet and so is the fastest way of journeying to the other side of the world. Of course, there are many problems and disasters, of which the loss of the Sunset 6 was but one, but in the end it provides a mechanism for economically firing craft into space and thus its colonisation.

The stories were translated from the original Chinese by Ken Liu, Elizabeth Hanlon, Zac Haluza, Adam Lanphier, and Holger Nahm. They have done a good and very consistent job.

I love short/shorter stories because they allow an idea to be developed without getting bogged down with having to fill hundreds of pages and in this collection Cixin Liu has ably demonstrated the form. He writes well and his descriptions do not merely set the scenes but conjure up the images to go with them. His stories have some great ideas and he tells them well; it is one of the most interesting books I have read in a while.

Peter Tyers

Update:  'The Wandering Earth' short story has been turned into a film. You can see the trailer here.  And the film's opening period in the USA sees it do very well.


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