Cixin Liu, To Hold Up The Sky (2020)

Author: Cixin Liu

Title: To Hold Up The Sky

Format: E-book

Pages: 336

Series: –

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.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Bear Head

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series: Dogs of War #2

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.

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Neal Asher, The Technician (2010)

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Technician

Format: Paperback

Pages: 503

Series: –

I realize I haven’t written the review for the final Agent Cormac book, Line War, and I can promise I will do that at some point, but since The Technician became the star of my previous post, I decided to give it the much-deserved review first.

The Technician is theoretically a standalone, and can indeed be read as such – though it is worth noting that it’s directly linked to the events described in The Line of Polity and the Agent Cormac series in general. I’d definitely recommend reading Agent Cormac series first – and that in the extended version, starting with Shadow of the Scorpion, where we first meet one of the main characters of The Technician.

The events described in The Technician take place in the year of Line War (2444 CE), though it would be difficult to figure it out since the planet Masada is so far away from the main arena of events. However, the timing works well in setting up previously underused characters, such as war drone Amistad and their lethal protégé, Penny Royal, in main roles, logically explaining the absence of Polity’s usual big shots such as the AIs Jerusalem or Earth Central.

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Asher on Holidays

This one’s for Will, who came up with the brilliant idea of combining the themes of our 2020 most popular/most liked posts: my review of Neal Asher’s The Line of Polity and Piotrek’s report from his Sicilian Vacation. So I took my trusty Asher with me, and here we are :D. Don’t worry, I will write a proper review of The Technician in due time 😉

Asher’s book and a glass of white wine at the sunset by the lake Rerewhakaaitu… A glorious combination 😀

The lake above lies near a still active volcano; its shores are made of pumice and sand, and the waters cover chunks of obsidian. Bhind us by the lake is Tarawera – the volcano responsible for the destruction of a natural wonder called Pink and White Terraces in the late 19th century. I suspect the obsidian and pumice present in the lake might be remnants of that historical eruption, which dramatically altered the entire landscape around the volcano.

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Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

 Author: Kim Stanley Robinson

Title: Aurora

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 466

Series: –

I know, I know, two KSR reviews in a row – but this one was a promise! 😀

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, while it had not received any awards and is not as well-known as his other books, notably 2312 and Martian trilogy, in my opinion remains one of the most important SF novels of our early 21st century. Engaging in a scientifically sound mind experiment and imagining a workable model of a generational starship, Aurora radically – and emphatically – dispels any illusions we could have harboured regarding the fate of humanity in the known universe. Contrary to the most books in KSR’s oeuvre, Aurora is not an optimistic novel; it shows, very clearly, that while humanity’s dream of interstellar travel might be possible, and indeed we’re getting close to reaching Mars, that other dream – of finding an Earth analog which would be instantly or near-instantly habitable and at the same time devoid of life – must be ultimately seen for what it is: a pipe dream, a fantasy, an illusion that in our current man-made predicament causes more harm than good, turning our heads up to the stars instead down, to the planet we are actually responsible for; the only home we have. Allow me to present the crux of the problem in Robinson’s own words:

“Maybe that’s why we’ve never heard a peep from anywhere. It’s not just that the universe is too big. Which it is. That’s the main reason. But then also, life is a planetary thing. It begins on a planet and is part of that planet. It’s something that water planets do, maybe. But it develops to live where it is. So it can only live there, because it evolved to live there. That’s its home. So, you know, Fermi’s paradox has its answer, which is this: by the time life gets smart enough to leave its planet, it’s too smart to want to go. Because it knows it won’t work. So it stays home. It enjoys its home. As why wouldn’t you? It doesn’t even bother to try to contact anyone else. Why would you? You’ll never hear back. So that’s my answer to the paradox. You can call it Euan’s Answer.” (p. 179)

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