Book Club

Wandering Earth

For March, we read The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu in book club. Little did I know The Three Body problem would take Netflix by storm and make this seem like a populist act…I have not seen the Netflix show (full disclosure) and this decision was definitely made before I knew about it. That being said I LOVED The Three Body Problem and whole dark forest trilogy, NOT because the science was correct (spoiler alert–it isn’t), but because it proposed such a novel solution to the Fermi Paradox: if there is such a large probability of extraterrestrial life, why can we not find it.

Novel thought experiments that make you look at the world differently is the heart of Liu’s writing, and why I generally liked The Wandering Earth. The Wandering Earth had 10 short stories (of which the first is a story by the titular name). Each story had a lesson or kernel of something brilliant in it, but I will say that there was a level of cruelty and disregard toward life, ecology, etc. in some of the stories that I found very troubling. Cixin Liu comes from a non-Western culture, and so his science fiction captures different commentary–what is considered dystopic, noble, and even typical gender norms vary greatly from what you might see in a Bradbury, Asimov, or Verne novel.

Since there were 10 stories, I won’t try to summarize them all–just share some of the high and low lights. The Wandering Earth was from a scientific perspective the most interesting to me (e.g. move the earth as a spaceship, instead of abandoning it in favor of building big enough spaceships/rockets).  To the comment on culture above, there is a degree of stoicism (the husband has an affair and the wife and child don’t even seem to notice his absence or ultimate return) and utter chaos from an environmental perspective that I cannot imagine seeing in a Western short story. There also are stories of resilience for the good of all, and ultimately resistance that does seem universal (conspiracy theories upsetting rational thought in the public dialogue–felt like a social media commentary was embedded even without any such technology referred to in the story). In general I found the story a bit cold, but also interesting.

The next story I liked was Sun of China. It was absolutely a hero’s quest (leaving home to work in the coal mines, then migrating continually for work becoming a “spiderman”–skyscraper window cleaner, and eventually a space explorer). It had the elements of manifest destiny that I have seen in 1900s literature from Western writers, but with a very different technological backdrop (again the concept of using technology to change weather patterns despite significant implications to world-wide ecology, and then the lack of any call to be home or with family other than to know they are proud of him). His motivation didn’t resonate with me from a values point of view, but it was a beautiful story all the same. 

Another one I really enjoyed (and found mind-bending in the best of ways) was Micro-era. A navigator returns to Earth from a deep space mission seeking the next habitable planet for humans to migrate to, fails to find such a planet, learns all of the other navigators also failed and died, returns home to earth, only to discover that the great cataclysmic event from which he was trying to find an escape for humanity has occurred and all life appears to be dead. THEN he realizes there is life, and the form factor is unexpected. It is a fun concept that enables a difficult reality to be faced, and new hope to be found. I thought it was…fascinating (and one of the few stories with an ecological angle that wasn’t catastrophic at least from the lens of human impact on the Earth.)

With Her Eyes was again an interesting thought experiment, and one of the most relatable stories in the novel (as it came down to gratitude, empathy, and the value of human connection). It is really a simple story with the lesson of cherishing the moment because we never know when we might lose it. 

Cannonball was very true-to-form Liu in my eyes: hard science where the joy of discovery is juxtaposed against the impact on society: “yes we can do amazing things…should we?”  I didn’t love the characters (this is fairly consistent feedback for me: outside of the characters in With Her Eyes, and the Captain in The Devourer, I didn’t find the character development to be fantastic), but I did find it to be an awesome thought experiment.

In Book Club we had a fabulous discussion led by two members who have background in Chinese history and culture about some of the nuance and commentary within the stories of the novel. With that lens, I found a deeper appreciation for the subtlety and elegance of Liu’s writing than I had previously had. In general I would recommend the novel (although For the Benefit of All Mankind was a brutal read for me personally). I would definitely recommend the collection, but maybe skip that one. 😉