Given that I wanted more epic short stories after going through Invisible Planets, Liu Cixin’s The Wandering Earth—his collection of classic science fiction short stories—seemed like a good bet on delivering grand scale in short(ish) doses. I was not disappointed.
The Wandering Earth features about a dozen stories that span on average about 50 pages, and impressed me with its range of scenarios in each plot. The “epicness” that I alluded to is presented here in spades: supernovaing suns, alien civilizations looking for resources or just to communicate, planet-wide tunnels that tickle the imagination. Most of it wouldn’t pass muster upon close scrutiny, so engaging with the stories requires some suspension of disbelief.
One of Liu Cixin’s reoccurring themes seems to be presenting grandiose engineering feats—that usually require all of humanity or alien civilizations to commit to building—and then exploring its social, political and economical ramifications on society. In this way, it reminds me of Star Trek and how the some of the early episodes became reflection and commentary on the 20th century. Like what we’re seeing today with social media, there’s an argument to be made about how technology plays a role in enabling and amplifying human behavior.
A stylistic annoyance I have with Liu is his insistence on using dialog to convey background details. To be fair, he draws from a line of well-established, hard-science sci-fi writers (e.g., Asimov, Stephenson, and the like), so his stories will be backed up by futurist physics and cosmology. With the truncated length of short stories, however, it’s evident that when given the words, he prefers to wax poetic on the technological developments of civilizations, so he has throwaway characters monologue for 5 pages, chaotic-neutral super villain style. It feels so unnecessary and contrived, and Liu never takes advantage of his characters (e.g., competing perspectives, unreliable narrator, etc.).
That said, it’s a fairly minor nit to pick when the main attraction is intergalactic engineering and the rise & fall of planetary civilizations. Like other epic tropes, it can feel overused at times, but I can’t fault the author for delivering exactly what he’s known for.