Liu Cixin is one of these writers that one happens upon while blissfully browsing in a favorite bookstore. In my case, this occurred at Changing Hands in Tempe, AZ, where I was perusing the science fiction section. Amidst the usual array of American and occasionally British authors the name Liu Cixin stood out like an unexpected flower in the middle of a sidewalk. The book on which Liu’s name was displayed was the second volume of a trilogy that I’d never heard of before, but which made this fortuitous encounter with Chinese sci-fi all the more enticing. Naturally, I looked for the trilogy’s first volume, which wasn’t available, nor were any other works by Liu.
When I returned home I hastily googled the author’s name, which straightaway directed me to his Wikipedia entry. In addition to being a multiple award winner, including China’s equivalent of the Hugo Award, I learned that Liu went to college in Yangquan, Shanxi and that he’s a trained technician and computer engineer. More important, though, was the fact that he and I were born the same year—almost on the same day! That was enough to convince me that I needed to delve into his writing. What I sampled in the bookstore instantly held me transfixed. But where to begin?
As I sifted through the selections available on amazon, I spotted a kindle edition of The Wandering Earth that promised to transport me from my mundane existence in Phoenix’s East Valley to a completely alternate universe, in which our blue planet and the solar system it had inhabited for countless millennia comes to an end. For what Liu imagines is a time when the earth’s rotation comes to a halt and humanity must figure out a way to survive the calamity. “My mother once told me,” as the unnamed narrator recalls in an elegiac tone, “about the time our family witnessed the last sunset.”
Over the course of hundreds of years earthling’s have been artificially rotating their planet with massive engines placed strategically on all the continents, including Asia, where much of the story happens. However, these “Earth Engines” are not for the purpose of mechanically restoring the celestial status quo. Instead, they are for the objective of distending the earth’s orbit around the sun in a way that will catapult the planet into deep space. Once free of the solar system, the earth will travel across infinite distances in search of a new star to call home. Of course, the earth undergoes dramatic environmental changes, yet somehow humans persevere, turning to underground cities as the surface becomes uninhabitable. Oceans freeze and mountain ranges are completely razed.
Through it all, Liu’s main character watches society endure, although values and beliefs change in response to the extremities of their predicament. The development that struck me as the most interesting was when after humans were driven underground this led to the unforeseen decline of the world’s major religions. It seems that people reached a point where they simply stopped practicing these traditions. Liu, however, doesn’t dwell on this topic. In fact, his narrator recounts the passing of religion matter-of-factly. This very brief episode fascinated me so much because I thought that in the hands of an American writer there inevitably would have arisen some kind of messianic movement, since Americans have this irrepressible, often annoying predilection for apocalyptic, Second Coming-like plot developments. Liu’s world is much starker, which for me made it more believable. Having said that, I shall refrain from divulging too much of what was a sincerely satisfying story. The climax was compelling and the end left me with a delightful regret that the narrative had drawn to its conclusion. I wanted more. Needless to say, I’ll soon be seeking out the rest of Liu’s impressive bibliography.