TO HOLD UP THE SKY By Cixin Liu, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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TO HOLD UP THE SKY By Cixin Liu, Review

Alexander Wallace reviews the recently released collection of short stories from Cixin Liu.
In recent years, Cixin Liu has doubtlessly become one of the giants of science fiction. For The Three-Body Problem alone, he will be remembered in the ranks of Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein. He will also be remembered for being the first Chinese science fiction author to gain prominence in the West, doing for the Hugos what Parasite did for the Academy Awards. He is a writer that has a very deft grasp on what makes science fiction work: the scale and grandeur of it, the sense of wonder as you explore worlds totally different from our own.

Liu is now mostly discussed for his novels; understandably so, given how the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy and Ball Lightning and Supernova Era are all incredible in their own ways. His short fiction is not brought up as much; this is a shame. I had read some of his short fiction in Broken Stars and Invisible Planets, two compendia of Chinese science fiction short stories by various authors translated by Ken Liu (perhaps the most influential Westerner in terms of bringing Chinese science fiction to the English-speaking genre intelligentsia); both of these anthologies are very much worth reading for anyone who likes short science fiction. Now, more of his short fiction is available to us in To Hold Up the Sky, a collection of his stories published between 1998 and 2017, available in English for the first time.
Here, Ken Liu does not have translator duty; that job is taken by Joel Martinsen, Adam Lanphier, John Chu, or Carmen Yiling Yang, depending on the story. I’ve read much of Liu’s work, translated by those authors and by Ken Liu, and there is a remarkable continuity of style that flows through all the different translations. To me, this demonstrates how well each of these translators must be, given that they all are capturing something in the original Chinese that I, someone with no knowledge of the language, can very easily perceive. Cixin Liu’s style is oftentimes a sparse one, not dissimilar to the intensely technical, straightforward prose that John W. Campbell enforced at Astounding. Liu feels like a Golden Age science fiction writer; those who like that sort of mid-century stuff will find much to like here. Despite this, he has range; those who enjoy the short stories of Ted Chiang or Greg Egan will likewise enjoy all the strange and wonderful things he has come up with.

Some thoughts on individual stories (and these are not all of them):
  • The Village Teacher - this is a relatively modest story about a science teacher in an impoverished rural village, combined with a story of something much grander in scale. Scale is something that Liu is consistently good at, as those who have read his trilogy can attest to. Here, he shows off his skills in character development, and also elegantly portrays the value of knowledge.
  • Contraction - this story is about the two different worlds we live in: the grand one of stars and planets and quantum phenomena, and the mundane one of interpersonal relationships and jobs and art. This story is pervaded by a sense of time reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It is Liu at his most philosophical, and tied with The Village Teacher for my favorite story in the collection.
  • Ode to Joy - a story about human commonality and the value of coming together (a somewhat painful message in lockdown). Musicians will like this one.
  • Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming - this one heavily reminded me of his novel Ball Lightning. It is Liu trying out a World War III story; fans of such, as well as Russophiles, will enjoy it.
I’ve told of four stories; there are eleven in the collection. Short fiction is what propelled the genre into its current state in its golden age; today, it is neglected for novels, which are worthy on their own but oftentimes drown out the short fiction discussion. I encourage anyone who has liked Liu’s novels to try his short fiction, and anyone who loves short science fiction to give this collection a spin.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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