"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"The moment at which Curse 2.0 appeared online found Cixin and Pan next to a trash can in the vicinity of the Taiyuan train station. They were fighting over half a pack of ramen that had been fished from the garbage only moments before. They had slept on floorboards and tasted gall for six years, until at last they had produced one three-million-character, ten-volume work of science fiction and one three-million-character, ten-volume work of fantasy. They had titled their works the Three-Thousand-Body Problem and Novantamililands, respectively."
Cixin Liu is a science fiction writer from China. All of his original works are in Chinese, and this short story collection, The Wandering Earth, is an English translation. What follows are synopses of each of the short stories in this collection.
"The Wandering Earth" inspired the blockbuster (?) movie of the same name. I put a question mark after "blockbuster" because it was really only a phenomenon in China, where audiences rallied around its imagery of a Chinese-led race to the stars.
The movie, however, bears little resemblance to the story that inspired it. Humanity is threatened, the Earth wanders, but on the whole the story is more about the changes that humanity undergoes during its flight from the solar system, and less about a specific nationality or family unit. If, like me, you were underwhelmed by the movie, you should check out the story, which is much better.
"Mountain" might be the trippiest story in this collection. It begins with an alien visitation, and then proceeds to a description of a very, very different corner of the cosmos. It's hard to describe this story without giving too much of it away, but I highly recommend it. It's a wonderful marriage of lyrical/classical Chinese imagery and one of the most interesting attempts at world-building I've ever seen.
"Sun of China" is about the development of an "artificial sun" over China. It starts out well, but it degenerates into a kind of sentimental nationalism.
"For the Benefit of Mankind" is the kind of story that would make William Gibson proud. In it a trained killer is offered a fortune to kill three people in the wake of an alien invasion. It would make a great movie IF that movie could make it past Mainland Chinese censors. As it is I doubt they'd touch it with a ten-meter pole.
"Curse 5.0" is the story of a virus. It's a more lighthearted, more tongue in cheek effort, something like Doctor Strangelove in a second-tier Chinese city.
"The Micro-Era" tells an alternate history of how humanity survived the solar flash which triggered "The Wandering Earth." There's not much of a plot to this one, and the comparison of cultures isn't enough to drive the story forward.
"Devourer" is hampered to some extent by its obviousness. The minute "Fangs" arrives it's fairly evident where his species has come from and what they mean to do. This is, I think, a story that overreaches itself, and the speculations concerning competition vs. cooperation in a biological context could have been expanded upon.
"Taking Care of God" like "Curse 5.0" above, is a more lighthearted effort, yet if any science fiction story ever reflected day-to-day life in communist China this is that story. The gods who arrive to burden humanity are compelling characters, and it also ties into "For the Benefit of Mankind" above.
"With Her Eyes" is the story of an unfortunate accident. I can't say more than that without giving the whole thing away. It's very forgettable.
"Cannonball," the last story here, is great science fiction in the tradition of Jules Verne. One of the characters even mentions Verne's From the Earth to the Moon near the end. I'm still not entirely sure why humanity felt the need to revive - and single out - the main character twice, but the idea at the center of the story is very interesting.
All in all, a very worthwhile read and also one of the best science fiction collections I've read in a long time. While Liu's science fiction may strike some readers as less "grounded," his disregard for scientific verisimilitude is firmly in the tradition of writers like Stanislaw Lem, Jules Verne, or even Italo Calvino. There's a wonderful spirit of play in Liu's work. He knows that some of the concepts used in his fiction are ridiculous, but he also knows that they're fun to think about just the same.
I'll be reading his trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End) just as soon as I finish up a few other titles. I've been very happy to make an acquaintance with Mr. Liu's fiction, and I'll be renewing this acquaintance in a month or so.
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)