12 votes

Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds

5 comments

  1. [3]
    patience_limited
    (edited )
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    I read Cixin Liu's stories and am not exactly a fan - it's impossible to convey the sweeping historical and political scope while maintaining relatable individual characters. There's no particular...

    I read Cixin Liu's stories and am not exactly a fan - it's impossible to convey the sweeping historical and political scope while maintaining relatable individual characters. There's no particular sense of human, or humane, interest.

    There is a relentless logic to his bleak worldview, formed through direct experience of the historical traumas of modern China, which he summarized as follows:

    “I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.”

    And yet this bleakness is both pitifully narrow and personally destructive; Cixin Liu is commented as follows:

    "Several times during our days together, he alluded both to his dependence on alcohol and to the need to abstain from hard liquor for the sake of his health. “At least two of my former colleagues have drunk themselves to death,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s not uncommon among engineers. You know the type.”

    While Liu disclaims that he's commenting on China's Great Power relationship with the rest of the world, it's interesting to read science fiction written without the triumphalism of liberal democracy. His societies take authoritarianism for granted, as the only effective organizing principle in a world of perpetual extinction-level emergency.

    His ability to maintain an astonishing imagination, to mine impersonal grains of hope for the human species (if not for the human individual) from the avalanche of history, still makes Cixin Liu a worthwhile speculative writer.

    5 votes
    1. imperialismus
      Link Parent
      I've only read the Three-Body Problem, and I'm a bit conflicted. I kind of agree with you that once the story really kicks into gear, it loses any focus it might have had on real, relatable...

      I read Cixin Liu's stories and am not exactly a fan - it's impossible to convey the sweeping historical and political scope while maintaining relatable individual characters. There's no particular sense of human, or humane, interest.

      I've only read the Three-Body Problem, and I'm a bit conflicted. I kind of agree with you that once the story really kicks into gear, it loses any focus it might have had on real, relatable characters. But at the same time, it was kind of a shock to go into this book expecting to read about alien civilizations and the first thing you read about is a woman who has to watch her father get beaten to death by a lynch mob for being a traitor to the revolution, and then she gets sent to a work camp even though she has a PhD in physics. The potential end of all humanity is set off by a decision made by one person, and that decision is definitely influenced by those initial experiences.

      From there, the story kind of loses sight of individuals. But that initial part does have some good focus on the individual and the way society jostles them around. It almost feels like Liu crammed several books' worth of material into one. I think a novel that was all about a scientist's experience during the Cultural Revolution could have been amazing, although it likely wouldn't have won any Hugos. The rest of the book contains some interesting ideas, but doesn't pack quite the same punch because it feels so abstract, which is a general failing of hard sci-fi.

      This is perhaps why I like Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (which became Arrival) so much. It's a hard science fiction story all about alien linguistics and the principle of least action in physics (seriously, there's a long infodump all about the way light prefers the shortest path). But it's also incredibly rooted in human experience. The other half of the story is a sequence of vignettes about a woman enjoying the experiences she shares with her daughter whom she knows will die young and there's nothing to be done about it. Really a tour de force. Shame most hard science fiction can't strike that balance, even most of the rest of Chiang's impressive ouvre.

      6 votes
    2. bbvnvlt
      Link Parent
      From the article: This made this trilogy a bit harder to get into then other books, yes, but it is also exactly what I found novel and stunning about the trilogy: The story about Liu Cixin's...

      I read Cixin Liu's stories and am not exactly a fan - it's impossible to convey the sweeping historical and political scope while maintaining relatable individual characters. There's no particular sense of human, or humane, interest.

      From the article:

      Liu has been criticized for peopling his books with characters who seem like cardboard cutouts installed in magnificent dioramas. Liu readily admits to the charge. “I did not begin writing for love of literature,” he told me. “I did so for love of science.”

      This made this trilogy a bit harder to get into then other books, yes, but it is also exactly what I found novel and stunning about the trilogy:

      Although physics furnishes the novels’ premises, it is politics that drives the plots. At every turn, the characters are forced to make brutal calculations in which moral absolutism is pitted against the greater good. In their pursuit of survival, men and women employ Machiavellian game theory and adopt a bleak consequentialism. In Liu’s fictional universe, idealism is fatal and kindness an exorbitant luxury. As one general says in the trilogy, “In a time of war, we can’t afford to be too scrupulous.” Indeed, it is usually when people do not play by the rules of Realpolitik that the most lives are lost.

      The story about Liu Cixin's grandparents, father, and uncle, is unbelievable:

      When the civil war resumed, after the Second World War, both sides conscripted men. Liu’s paternal grandparents had two sons and no ideological allegiance to either side, and, in the hope of preserving the family line, they took a chilling but pragmatic gamble. One son joined the Nationalists and the other, Liu’s father, joined the Communists.

      For me, reading this trilogy was strangely hopeful, in that it painted a plausible story of how humanity may be capable of overcoming global, existential crises. At great cost, arguably too high of a price, but still. It's a type of story, mode of human action, and shape of sociological history that I've never read in Western authors' fiction (apart from outright dystopias).

      Final quote from the article, adding to the father/uncle situation:

      The scale and the speed of China’s economic transformation were conducive to a fictive mode that concerns itself with the fate of whole societies, planets, and galaxies, and in which individuals are presented as cogs in larger systems. The fact that state-owned enterprises were increasingly at the mercy of their balance sheets fundamentally changed social expectations in a country where the danwei—or work unit—had rivalled the family as a facet of one’s identity. In the nineties, tens of millions of workers found themselves laid off, with no social-security system. In 2000, the same year that Liu’s story “The Wandering Earth” was published, he was told to choose which half of his staff to let go and which to keep.

      Then again, currently I'm reading N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, where communities adopt similar calculating behavior during a Season (a period of extreme and deadly climatological upheaval).

      2 votes
  2. muh_tilde
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    Funny quote in there -

    Funny quote in there -

    When he saw the gilded letters of the Trump hotel, he gave a gleeful chuckle. “Out of all the American Presidents, he is the only one whose speeches I can understand directly, without translation,” he remarked. “There are no big words or complicated grammar. Everything he says is reduced to the simplest possible formulation.”

    2 votes
  3. [2]
    Comment deleted by author
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    1. patience_limited
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      Thank you for providing perspective on this. It's easy for Western writers to affect moral superiority when they haven't had to struggle for the basic necessities of life; to make sure, first and...

      Thank you for providing perspective on this. It's easy for Western writers to affect moral superiority when they haven't had to struggle for the basic necessities of life; to make sure, first and foremost, that their families don't suffer privation.

      I've often thought about democracy in the same context of energy balance as capitalism. Neither can function when a significant fraction of people don't have enough resources for food, shelter, education, or medicine, and are driven to violence instead of negotiation. Both require huge amounts of energy expenditure and "social capital" (trust) reserve to ensure individual freedoms.

      But coercive, authoritarian systems succumb to corruption, infighting, or feudal stagnation very easily. Even the most stable empires of history caused immense human suffering by mismanagement and inability to respond to external military threats, climate changes, or disease epidemics. I suspect that if Liu had a broader global historical perspective, he might have formulated the "long view" approach to human survival a little differently.

      1 vote