Author: Cixin Liu
Title: To Hold Up The Sky
Liu’s short story collection comes in the wake of his breakthrough success with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Translated by several translators (none of which was Ken Liu, who translated The Three-Body Problem, and Ican’t help but wonder if politics wasn’t the reasond for that) To Hold Up the Sky offers 11 diverse stories spanning near and far future of our own reality; their main common point seems to be their prominent focus on China and a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism. As usual with short stories collections, I’ll review each story separately and give a composite score at the end.
The Village Teacher 0/10
I’d give it 0/10 if I could. Oh, wait, you know what? I can.
Over a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR I never expected to read such a prime example of soc-realist fiction fresh off the publishing press. The primitivity of this story is simply staggering on every level: from the utterly two-dimensional character of the martyr to knowledge – the selfless village teacher bravely giving his life in the heroic quest to teach little kids the Newton’s laws of motion on his death bed in the mountain shed serving as a classroom – to the cosmic conflict between the good carbon-based life-forms who live peacefully in a Federation and the bad silicone-based life-forms who formed a bloodthirsty Empire… Having read both the Polish positivist literature (Orzeszkowa’s ABC vividly comes to mind, and that’s a horrific memory of sickly good intentions married to a total inability to write) and the USSR bestseller and soc-realist opus magnum Story of the Real Man by the Hero of Socialist Labor Boris Polevoy I’ve been scarred for life already. But this… This was even worse. Much, much worse. Polevoy’s book was actually interesting, if you stripped it of the Soviet propaganda – maybe because it was based on a true story. Here? Nothing makes sense.
The Time Migration 1/10
A sickly sweet, unbelievable happy ending belatedly tacked on a nihilistic philosophical story about how humanity is bad and how its progress will eventually lead to its self-inflicted demise. While the main arc at least tried to introduce some ideas about the relationship between humanity and its environment, the conclusion was at once predictable and nonsensical, serving only some vague aim of ending on a positive note. Extremely heavy-handed, populated with cardboard representations of roles (not people, just positions), it reads like a juvenile piece dug out from a drawer after several decades. It should have been left in that drawer.
Immortality is costly, and inducive to crime. Love is a mirage of convenience; the only love one can find in life is self-love, and if you’re criminally-minded enough, you can have an eternity of it. The characters are still paper-thin, but at least the story breaks the mold a little and in its depressing depiction of egoism feels more honest than Time Migration.
Fire in the Earth 0/10
Gaaah! This was an even worse example of soc-realist blather. The “Salt of the earth” people, the simple, down to earth blue-collar workers, are by definition inherently good and wise with the accumulated wisdom of life leaching through the soles of their shoes from the land on which they ceaselessly toil (even if they remain corrupt and inane) whereas the educated city slickers bring only woe and tragedy with their high-minded hubris and egoistic inventions. The egotistic educated fops get their just deserts, and only after justice is served can we get a happy ending. I can’t help but find similarities between this story’s attitude toward the value and uniqueness (or their lack) of an individual life and the ultimate message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002). In this worldview human life is just the necessary grease for the collective progress.
A very cool, short story which doesn’t make any scientific sense according to our current knowledge, but is highly enjoyable, nonetheless. I really liked Liu’s consistency in taking the story to its end. An interesting take on the possible (no longer, really, but that’s not the point) future end of the universe. Can’t say anything else if I want to keep it spoiler-free.
Another 0/10. Utterly nonsensical from the scientific standpoint, but what really infuriated me was its ideological content. The utterly corrupt, ruthless middle echelon Chinese bureaucrats (very intelligent, because of course they studied physics before they became politicians) are ultimately sacrificing their lives for the idea of individual freedom – contrary to the fanatical Christian Harvard professor who reinvents the Big Brother in his misguided crusade against sin. Yes, the last scene actually depicts said professor kissing the silver cross on his breast. It is ironic, really (well, admittedly I could only appreciate it after I got rid of the foam from my mouth) that in Liu’s aptly named story it’s the West that doesn’t understand the value of individual freedom. I’d argue Liu should turn this Mirror on the Chinese state: the Uighurs, the Nepalese, the Taiwanese would have a lot to say to him, I imagine. Plus, I cannot help but notice how the Christian elements of this story play into wider current Chinese politics with regards to Christianity. A really illuminating piece of propaganda.
Ode to Joy 1/10
Humanity is so at odds with itself that heads of states decide to disband UN. Fortunately for humans, during the ceremony a gigantic Mirror appears above the Earth, claiming to be a musician playing on stars and deciding it’s time to give a concert. Turning Alpha Centauri into a supernova seems to do the trick and humans give UN a second chance. There are several interesting elements in this story: for example, only the Chinese president seems observant enough to notice Southern Hemisphere constellations above New York, but later, inexplicably, every head of state turns out to be a closet astrophysicist and has some remark to add to the discussion with the Mirror. I also noted down a quote that to me seems particularly revealing:
“When a civilization travels far enough on the road of time, individual and collective both disappear.”
In most SF that I read, this blurring and ultimate annihilation of the division between individual and collective is a cause for serious concern and more often than not a mark of the ultimate villainy – see Asher, or Reynolds (though the latter not entirely, but that’s a different discussion), or Star Trek, or Star Wars, or so many other Western examples, really. Here, it’s the mark of inevitable progress, the only possible road to power and knowledge. I could seriously start dissecting this worldview as a radical variation of the mythical worldview rooted in the human need of belonging to something greater, as Kolakowski put it, and start analyzing it from the perspective of the modern Chinese aggressive nationalism – but this is just a book review, not a sociological essay. Interestingly enough, the Mirror speaks in the first person. Talk about schizophrenia.
Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming 0/10
Unbelievable. A solemn tribute to the heroic Russian soldiers whose Motherland has been invaded by NATO (!) because Russian democratic elections (!!) had been won by the Communist party. The brave Russians die with their PhDs and poetic verses on their lips, while their lovers in the Russian space station find a happy convergence between their patriotic duty and their doomed love and blast into the Sun, plunging Earth back into the Stone Age (or Bayonet Age, to be more precise). The last scene depicts NATO invaders (ruthless Americans and cowardly French) being overwhelmed by the human-and-tank tide of Russians. I especially loved the reference to the Vietnam War as it’s my area of study. Let’s be frank here: I have nothing good to say about the American involvement in Vietnam, and quite a lot of very bad things; but here it seems that the author has subconsciously treated Vietnam as Chinese/Russian territory, as a result completely forgetting that it’s its own nation-state, that it fell under the Communist Chinese influence as a result of the Vietnam War and not all of Vietnam (not even the majority of it) welcomed said Communist influence (in the form of an invasion from the North) with open arms – on the contrary.
Sea of Dreams 4/10
Another alien entity, inspired by Earth ice sculptures, takes away all Earth’s water to create a superior work of art. Once the sculpture is finished, it disappears, leaving humans to deal with their upcoming waterless deaths. Fortunately, the adversity brings humanity together and a rescue plan is devised and enacted, proving that will and need can trump technological advancement… Umm, should we look for hidden meanings? No need, Liu spells some of them out for us in capital letters:
“The existence of individuals is also a troublesome part of infant civilizations. Later, individuals melt into the whole. There’s no society or politics as such.”
Oh, well, yes: this again. Thanks, but NO.
Cloud of Poems 7/10
A totally bonkers story about a hollowed-out (well, reconstituted, really) Earth, a dinosaur empire breeding humans like cattle for food, an alien consciousness downloaded to a human clone, and a poetry challenge resulting in an absolute annihilation of the Solar system. As an adventure story it is quite entertaining, as a showcase of imagination – even better. Forgive me if after so many aggressively nationalistic stories I look at the attempt to prove the universal superiority of Chinese poetry with a somewhat jaded eye.
The Thinker 9/10
Star-crossed lovers from different walks of life bonding over the discovery that stars in the universe communicate like neurons in a brain. A lovely, melancholy story that touchingly underscores the tragic shortness of human life span and the wonderful miracle of consciousness. If you need proof that Liu can actually write something that is not a primitive propaganda piece, you need not look any further. I were to read one Liu’s story, that would be it.
That was one rough ride. The only undeniable positive coming from this mostly harrowing experience is that because I was able to consider it as an anthropological case study I became more interested in Chinese culture and socio-political situation. But judging Liu’s collection on purely literary merits, as a whole it can get only one score from me (unweighted mean is a bit higher, 3/10, but my overall experience was definitely worse than that):
I have received a copy of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.