Book Discussion: The Wandering Earth by Cixin LiuThe Dark Herald
The Wandering Earth is an anthology of novellas by Cixin Liu, the (2015) Hugo Award-winning author of the Three-Body Problem. Which incidentally was the last time the Hugos reflected the voice of the entire fandom instead just 300-pound, purple-haired weirdos.
I found this collection as intriguing as the Three Body for similar reasons. When I read his first novel, I was honestly rather surprised by what he was able to get away with in Communist China. That book began with an unflinching look at the fanaticism and brutality of the Cultural Revolution. However, once I learned a couple of things about the PRC I could spot the places where you could see Liu was clearly towing the Party line. The same thing is present in the Wandering Earth stories.
A while back I had recommended the Chinese film, The Wandering Earth. For any of you who followed my recommendation, I should tell you now that the story and the movie only share the same setting. The story is completely different.
Cixin Liu writes the hardest hard science fiction out there. In some ways, it’s a throwback to the days of Larry Niven. Yet his deeply layered characterizations don’t suffer for it.
This is usually a dichotomy in the world of science fiction. You can have one or the other but rarely both. The reason is that hard Science Fiction tends to be setting-driven, it’s all about: What if…?
Whereas character-driven science fiction stories are all about: Tell me about a guy who…?
Doing both is very difficult because these are very different skill sets.
However, they blend seamlessly when you are using an Eastern story structure like the Japanese Kishōtenketsu . Darklings of long-time standing can skip this next part, you know it by heart by now.
Most of our fiction is based on the three-act story and conflict is central to this structure. All aspects of the tale will be adjacent in some manner to the central conflict.
Act I: Setting, we meet the characters and get to know their world, and the conflict is introduced. Act I ends when there is an inciting incident that begins the second act.
Act II: The tension of this conflict builds and escalates. Act II ends when the tension comes to a head.
Act III: The climax of the story; where one way or another the conflict is resolved and is no longer present. Tensions rapidly deescalate and the story slips into the (optional) denouement.
Conflict is essential to this story structure.
In the West, the struggle is external.
In the East the struggle is internal.
This is defined by the story structure Kishōtenketsu. Yes, that is a Japanese word but the same concepts very much apply to storytelling in the rest of the Far East. Hell, China basically invented it with Journey to the West.
Kishōtenketsu is a compound word whose sub-syllables describe their steps in the plot. Kishōtenketsu works like this:
Introduction (ki): introducing characters, era, and other important information for understanding the setting of the story.
Development (shō): follows leads toward the twist in the story. Major changes do not occur.
Twist (ten): the story turns toward an unexpected development. This is the crux of the story.
Conclusion (ketsu), also called ochi (落ち) or ending, wraps up the story.
I first took an interest in Kishōtenketsu when I was trying to find an answer to the question of; why doesn’t One Punch Man suck? How does it work so well when the hero of the story is so ludicrously overpowered that he can literally solve any conflict with a single punch? And the answer was that conflict while part of the story is never at the heart of the story. The real story of One Punch Man is Saitama’s lost humanity and his quest to regain it through the friendships that he forges with other superheroes. Frequently his story is told through the various members of his developing Nakama.
Ki: Saitama, the problem of his loss of humanity, and his world of superheroes are introduced. He has terminal ennui because he is the absolute physical apex and faces no challenge and thus cannot achieve anything. And his struggle to find just one enemy that will be a challenge to him is presented as central to his identity. His quest is to find just one enemy that he can NOT defeat with a single punch.
Shō: His journey as a hero begins when he is befriended by the cyborg Genos. He joins the Hero Association and starts climbing its ranks. Starting from the very bottom.
Ten: The all-important Twist. The apex of the story. The alien Boros invades the Earth. Boros has the exact same problem as Saitama. He has fallen into terminal-ennui as he has never met a single enemy he couldn’t defeat with a single punch. They fight, it’s extended and it’s epic.
Ketsu: Saitama defeats Boros although Boros realizes that Saitama could have beaten him at any time with one punch. But Saitama has regained enough of his humanity that he took pity on Boros and dragged out the fight for a long time. Saitama did this for the sake of another person.
Let’s take another example that is better known in the West. Hamlet.
Act I: We find out what’s rotten in the state of Denmark. Inciting incident: Hamlet’s ghost dad orders him to kill his murderer who happens to be Hamlet’s usurping uncle.
Act II: Hamlet mopes around for three hours but he does build a lot of tension and finally accuses his uncle of a murderer in the most passive-aggressive way possible by having actors do it in a play within the play itself.
Act III: The climax. Hamlet has resolved to kill his uncle and Uncle King has decided to whack out his annoying, greasy little stepson. He recruits a guy who has good freaking reason to kill Hamlet. The hits get botched and most everyone dies. Hamlet makes another long-ass speech before he croaks.
Now let’s turn it into the Kishōtenketsu story structure by following it through the eyes of Hamlet’s best friend Horatio.
Ki: The setting is introduced. Horatio’s close friendship with Hamlet is established.
Shō: Horatio’s heart is joined with Hamlet’s on the prince’s journey into a near-psychotic break. He tries to come to grips with his duty and he suffers as Hamlet suffers.
Ten (The Twist): Hamlet fucks up his assassination attempt by damn near sending Claudius a telegram telling him he’s going to kill him for murdering his father. Laertes dies (the poor bastard). Hamlet’s mother dies. Claudius is killed. Hamlet is laying mortally wounded and Horatio breaks down at the sight of so much pointless bloodshed. He nearly commits suicide himself.
Ketsu: Horatio achieves Enlightenment upon hearing Hamlet’s pleas to not kill himself if he ever had any love for him at all. Horatio puts Fortinbras on the throne as his Prince instructed and then joins the priesthood (presumably).
Conflict was integral to Hamlet’s story.
Conflict while present in Horatio’s Kishōtenketsu version of these same events, was only incidental to his story of achieving Enlightenment. The fault lay in himself.
And Horatio overcame it.
This is the key to Cixin Liu’s success. Eastern story structure is setting driven to be sure, but at its core, the setting has to be what drives the character to his moment of enlightenment when his paradigm will shift without a clutch.
My three favorite novellas were The Wandering Earth, Sun of China, and Cannon Ball. The rest were good too, but these were my preferred stories.
Sun of China follows the life of a hard-working, borderline illiterate Chinese peasant and how his modest life’s ambitions led him from a village where he had never once tasted water that wasn’t bitter to being a window cleaner for skyscrapers in Bejing, to being the ultimate high rise mirror polisher.
Canon Ball is the story of a man who, with no hope for an afterlife, chooses to enter suspended animation until there is either a cure or thirty years have passed. His wife never wakes him and when he is awoken, he is in a world where everyone blames him for his son’s destruction of the world. His son had dug a tunnel from China to Antarctica. There turned out to be short and long-term consequences. And since his son was dead a small lynch mob decided to the father would answer for the son’s crimes. And they did so by throwing him into the tunnel his son had built.
The Wandering Earth. The movie version is a light-hearted romp by comparison to this story. As I said, apart from the title and setting the stories are completely different. This novella functions as a biography of a man who was born to the last generation that would see a sunrise. It follows his entire life as humanity, in a frantic bid to survive an imminent solar helium flash, builds mountainous engines that stop the Earth’s rotation and then begin pushing the planet towards its new home around Proxima Centauri.
In case you are wondering, the only planet they could find with existing liquid water was 100,000 lightyears away, and there was no FTL technology. The enclosed biosphere universe ships were projected to fail in 10,000 years. Whereas it would only take the Earth a bit over 1,000 years to get to Proxima. It was easier to take the hometown with us.
Like I said, the science in these stories is granite-hard. But the character progression is very strong. That said there are some throwbacks to 1960s science fiction. Atheism is taken as an unquestioned and unquestionable absolute that all smart people adhere to instinctively. I actually laughed out loud at the part in the Wandering Earth where it was stated that all religions had died in the centuries leading up to the Departure. It felt like such a call out to Arthur C. Clarke’s destruction of all religion in two hours in *Childhood’s End. Then there are some Heinlein touches, in Wandering Earth, the protagonist’s father informs his wife that he will be moving out for a while because he’s fallen in love with their son’s teacher, but expects to be back home in a few months. The wife doesn’t mind at all.
I admit as a Westerner, it’s a little odd to read stories where there is often little or no love between married couples. It’s just a life partnership you happen to be stuck with more often than not. What affection there is, is a lot closer to the Greek concept of philias than that of eros. Children matter more than your spouse, and while I agree in principle, in practice the lack of shared intimacy is **jarring. I’ve run into that with Liu’s works before, Three Body Problem comes to mind.
But at the end of the day, brilliant as Cixin Liu’s work is, there is no hope at its core. This is fairly typical of works that come from cultures that aren’t Christian because there really isn’t much hope in the hereafter. Look at any of the classical writers in their own languages and it’s all pretty dour, stoic stuff. Even the pre-Christ Hebrews didn’t have much in the way of hope, other than the hope that one day their souls would be released from Sheol. The best the ancient Greeks and Romans could hope for was that they would go to a better neighborhood of Hades. In the East, the tradition leans toward repeated and unwanted reincarnations until you finally don’t have to be reborn anymore.
So, if you read The Wandering Earth, don’t look for much in the way of upbeat endings because you generally won’t get them. What matter is the twist, which is why I’ve danced around the plots in this review.
If you liked The Three Body Problem you won’t be disappointed here, although you’ve probably already read it.
Okay, I’m done here.
*In Childhood’s end there was a wayback machine that would show you any historical event. And that was what killed all religions. Uh-huh. Buddhism would have shown a guy meditating then eating a lot. Islam would have shown a guy writing a book. Judaism would survive well enough if some of the early stuff was shown to be wrong. The only religion that could suffer damage if one event was disproven was Christianity. And Clarke was way too gutless to spell it out.
**Yes, I’ve seen Chinese romances. I know they exist.