To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu: Book Review
To Hold Up the Sky by Liu Cixin My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars When The Three Body Problem was published in an english translation, SFF fans were immediately enamoured by Cixin Liu and his fascinating imagination that flirted with both the possible and the far-fetched in equal measures. In this anthology the reader will find eleven works of short fiction by this prolific author, translated by different individuals including Joel Martinsen, the translator of The Dark Forest. All these translations are new, as these works have never been published in english before, but the stories themselves are not with the oldest one called Contraction, copyrighted in 1985 and published in 1999. The newest of the stories, The Time Migration, was published in 2014. The author draws a parallel theme in his stories also evident in his famous Three-Body Problem trilogy, namely the challenges that concern all of humanity. He also explores the relationship between humanity’s smallness in comparison to the greatness of the universe. Although as he explains, humanity is small collectively and individually, it is apparent in many of his stories that Cixin Liu has a strong love for humanity and will always root for it to succeed against the biggest of the challenges. It is maybe a challenge for the skeptics out there to always side with humanity after all that has been said and done over the years including wars and the continuous destruction of our planet but it can also be seen as a breath of fresh air, to side with people, to not immediately condemn them. As is the case with most anthologies, some stories are better than others and some have stuck with me for the fascinating ideas and implications that Cixin Liu has put on the table. Still, most of the stories did not live up to my expectations. One of the criticisms many reviewers had for Liu’s trilogy was his writing of characters. Liu’s characters do not feel like real people and many times do not talk like real people but more like a device that moves the plot and is there only to serve the progression of the plot. This is also certainly true in many of his short stories in this collection as well. Yes, Liu has a great imagination and he can create an ingenious and visionary story but the characters are severely lacking in..character. This could be attributed to the collectivistic culture of China versus the individualistic culture Westerners are more accustomed to. In a collectivistic perspective the story would make the story while in Western cultures people are more familiar with following characters through a story. Certainly, a balance between a great story and great characters would be the best potion for success but although Liu’s characters were severely lacking in his trilogy, his incredibly imaginative story made up for it. Unfortunately, this is not the case with his short stories, at least not all of them. Some of the stories felt boring and flat like Sea of Dreams which was more of a fantasy than a science fiction story. In Sea of Dreams, an alien appears during the Ice and Snow Arts Festival and is inspired by the ice sculptures it sees to create a magnificent work of art made of the entirity of the Earth’s oceans. “I have been inspired. I want to create! I must create!” says the low-temperature alien artist and then a few moment later says: “What? Your form of art is as pitiable as bacteria. Do you think my form of low-temperature art is anything like that?” So, the alien was inspired by a pitiable form of art to create that same form of art in a grander scale. He lifts the water of the oceans and freezes it high above Earth and nowhere do we see the sea life that resides in this body of water. And what happens to Earth when the water from the oceans is gone? We have come to expect that Liu will have thought above and beyond about the concequences of actions, so this story felt like a poor mixture of fantasy later turned into science fiction that failed to land. Still, there were two fascinating stories in this collection. One of them is called Contraction and it involves the discovery of professor Ding Yi of the exact moment that the universe stops expanding and starts contracting. Liu comes up with an imaginative thought-experiment story, one I am still thinking about. In another story called Mirror, a superstring computer can predict every single thing that has ever happened to the universe since the Big Bang. Liu comes up with this great idea of people rediscovering history under a completely new light, but what about the fact that were such a supercomputer possible, the future of humanity would also be absolutely predictable down to the finest detail. People would know when and how they would die, however such an implication is never explored. There is definitely entertainment value in these short stories by Liu Cixin but comparing them to his novels it falls short both in terms of imagination and execution. I would still not discourage fans of thought experiment from giving it a try.