The Cretaceous Past' by Cixin Liu, Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Cretaceous Past' by Cixin Liu, Review

Alexander Wallace mediates between the ants and the dinosaurs.
Cixin Liu is doubtlessly the vanguard of Chinese science fiction in the Western world. The Middle Kingdom’s speculative fiction has taken the Anglosphere by storm, and it was Liu’s The Three-Body Problem that kicked it off. We have now gotten the chance to read Hao Jingfang and Chen Qiufan and Xia Jia, but Liu remains the standard bearer.

In May 2021, Liu’s novel The Cretaceous Past was released for the first time in the United States; in the United Kingdom, it had been previously released as Of Ants and Dinosaurs. The British title is blunt, but perhaps a better description of the story than the American one, for it concerns those two species.

Millennia ago, Liu describes, before the modern continents had broken into the familiar map, there were two species (one perhaps better described as a group of species): ants and dinosaurs. Liu sets out the strengths and weaknesses of these two species in great detail; dinosaurs are bad at fine motor skills but good at abstract thinking, whereas ants are uncreative but dextrous and cooperative. The astute reader will notice early on how these two profiles complement one another.

Then comes the moment that changes the fate of these species: a dinosaur tries and fails to get a stray piece of meat out between his teeth. The ants realize they can remove the meat, ending the dinosaur’s irritation. Soon, the two realize that there is much to be gained from this partnership.

Such is the uncelebrated founding of a whole way of living.
From one perspective, The Cretaceous Past is an extended metaphor on the fragile interdependencies that make up modern industrial civilization. The dinosaurs and the ants each need what the other has and have what the other needs. It is a very delicate balance, one that could topple at any moment. And, despite all that, the leaders of both sides never quite seem to realize how utterly irrational it is that they seek to antagonize each other as much as they do.

It is at this point rather clear just how thoroughly allegorical this novel is. There is much implicit lambasting of human shortsightedness and irrationality, as well as our own deeply repellent tribalism. There is the madness of mutually assured destruction and the looming specter of environmental devastation. This book has an immense amount to say for a novel just shy of two hundred pages.

If there is a weakness, it is the prose. Here, Liu is translated by Elizabeth Hanlon, but I have found that, through reading his work from a number of different translations, similar things stand out. His prose is direct and sparse, reminiscent of Western science fiction of the era of John W. Campbell, with comparatively little character development and much talk of big ideas. The writing is not bad, but it is workmanlike rather than hand-crafted.

Those waiting for a new work from China’s greatest science fiction writer will not be disappointed, and neither will the general reader. If one likes Golden Age-style SF, so much the better.

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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