To Hold Up the Sky

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy, which began with “The Three-Body Problem,” is arguably the most significant work of science fiction so far this century: full of ideas, full of optimism, enormous in scale. But, with more than 1,000 pages across three books, the series demands a high level of commitment from readers. Mr. Liu’s new story collection, “To Hold Up the Sky” (Tor, 334 pages, $27.99), shows us where he’s coming from, and how far he’s come.

The 11 stories here were all first published in China, some as long as 20 years ago. In his introduction, Mr. Liu denies that there is any systemic difference between Chinese and Western sci-fi. Both have the same underlying theme: the immense difference between the scale of humans as individuals and the scale of the universe around us. This shows in the first story, “The Village Teacher.” Its scenes shift from a mountain village, where a primary-school teacher lies on his deathbed, explaining Newton with his last breath, to a million-warship galactic war, in which Earth and humanity are about to be destroyed. Unless, that is, randomly selected samples, who happen to be from the old teacher’s last class, can prove humanity’s intelligence. Can the small, for once, confound the great?

The poverty scenes in this collection are moving in a way not normally found in sci-fi, but one has to say that the “casual elimination by aliens” trope was old by the time of “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” In “Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming,” Mr. Liu imagines the final shootout between Russia and NATO, as it might have seemed back in 2001, when the story was first published. It’s a battlefield full of Abrams and T-90 tanks, as well as Comanche helicopters and a Russian orbital fort—but all of them are rendered useless by electronic counter-measures. So it’s back to bayonets. Done well, but the same development was at the heart of Gordon Dickson’s “Dorsai” stories a long generation ago.

. . . .

Mr. Liu’s strength is narrowing the large-scale tech down to agonizing issues for individuals. That could be us. 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

20 thoughts on “To Hold Up the Sky”

  1. A lot of the same issues popped up in Russian SF during the Soviet era; well written stories based on scenarios new to the authors but old hat out west.
    Well written but otherwise…
    The authors were effectively working in a parallel world.

    A similar situation befell Disney with the new STAR WARS trilogy in China, which thudded noticeably there. A lot of its appeal outside China was the audience’s familiarity with the characters and their world. Since China kept the earlier movies out of theaters nobody had experienced the awe of tbe original trilogy within the context of its times and by the time they were allowed to watch them they’d been exposed to the wave of wannabes that followed Lucas.

    The old line that all SF is a product of its times is never as accurate as when one encounters works from outside the mainstream; be it Russian, China, or L. Ron Hubbard coming to market after 40 years away, or Gore Vidal and his kind pretending anybody can play in the field without prior exposure.

    Context is essential to fully appreciate a story, especially if it remains readable and current well past its time. This more than anything defines the classics of the field, the ability to tap into timeless ideas and concepts, regardless of the story’s origin or setting.

    It will take time before Liu’s place in the field becomes apparent as his works are compared to what came before, what is coming now, and coming in the future.

    He may stand the test or he might fade as many once lionized.
    We’ll see.

    • Well said.

      The reference to Dorsai suggests that the WSJ’s reviewer knows SF, but “back to bayonets”, whilst true the TACTICS OF MISTAKE is a bit over the top: good old rifles, machine guns and mortars are immune to ECM.

      My personal feeling is that the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy is arguably not the most significant work of science fiction so far this century (but this is all subjective and I’ll probably be dead before the test of time delivers its verdict).

      This book does present an interesting example of diverging attitudes to pricing in the USA and the UK, or maybe I should say between publishers? The USA prices – both Kindle and paperback – are more than I’d be prepared to pay (though I’m not sure what the Kindle price is: in Chrome where I’m signed into my Amazon account it says “from $11.99”; in Opera where I’m using the VPN with a USA location it says $14.99 – what’s more the latter says “sold by Macmillan, price set by publisher”).

      The UK prices for Kindle, hardback and paperback are between 40% and 60% lower and I would be just about willing to pay them (at least if I really wanted the book – my TBR pile is too high for it to tempt me though).

      • Mike, I would note that, while the delivery systems are quite immune to EMP – mass production plants for the ammunition are not.

        • True, so it’s down to who has the biggest stockpile of old ammo and/or who can most easily roll back to WW1 style production? Or possibly, who has their strategic manufacturing plants hidden deep underground?

          Presumably, modern steel plants all depend on electronics so swords and bayonets are also going to be in short supply?

          (Though now that I think about it, Eachen Khan’s worries about over- complicated weapons in the Dorsai books were about battlefield electronic and ultrasonic countermeasures so not quite the same situation as NATO 2001).

      • For what it’s worth, I suspect Dickson simplified combat in the DORSAI CYCLE for reader accessibility more than out of any vision of future warfare.

        At the time he wrote DORSAI! and most of his cycle, combat SF wasn’t the established subgenre it became a generation later. Also, in the context of the time he was probably reflecting the “liberation movements” and proxy wars of the cold war era for reader familiarity and thus accessibility. Good thinking, really.

        DORSAI and especially TACTICS OF MISTAKE is a foundational part of Combat SF, possibly even more so than STARSHIP TROOPERS and the BOLO stories. It is also core to the central theme of the entire CHILDE CYCLE of the cultural splintering of humanity into competing, specialized “subspecies” with entirely different ideas of how life is to be lived, from the Honor-driven Dorsai to the religiously driven Friendlies. In that one can find parallels to that is going on these days in the present, particularly in the US culture wars. It may or not have been his intent–I’ve seen no data suggesting he intended that but enduring SF transcends author intent. 😉

        Highly under-appreciated, Mr Dickson.
        In my book he was at least tbe equal of Poul Anderson, the other master of SF of his cohort, both a notch above Herbert and LeGuin. While DORSAI and the rest of his Cycle are properly held up as true classics, many of his “lesser” works don’t get the recognition they deserve. Stories like his SPACE SWIMMERS series or, going deep, WILDLING and OUTSIDER. And then there’s the HOKAS. Always readable and insightful. A true Master of the field and a groundbreaker in his understated way.

        (For my money, although the CHYLDE CYCLE is deserving of its enduring acclaim, I do wish TIME STORM got more attention. Maybe in live action video. Its theme is literally eternal. :D)

        Oh, and as for future real-world combat?
        EMP may or not feature (again) but the technology I’m keeping an eye on is Kinetic Strikes. That the Pentagon is muttering about buying their own STARSHIP/SUPERHEAVY combos brings up images of the 60’s Project Thor. (AKA, Rods from God). Also or LASER-armed orbital gunships, not for ground strikes, but for satellite…deactivation…
        The tech pieces all exist right now and the motivation to go those ways is steadily increasing.
        I don’t think groundpounders will be at the heart of the next big one.
        It’ll be the techies’ game.
        It’s just about time for a different kind of Shock and Awe.

        That’ll be $0.02.

        • I’m in two minds about kinetic weapons. In their SF origins (which I assume are The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Footfall, though you’ll no doubt correct me if I’m wrong) they are totally devastating, plus no effective defence and no radiation, though liberal use may still induce a nuclear winter.

          However, the modern tungsten telegraph poles are a bit less convincing; at Mach 10 the KE is not that much higher than the energy of an equivalent mass of high explosive, so why not just deliver the high explosive in a more conventional manner? There are advantages in there being no active defence possible and having the ability to strike almost anywhere on the world’s land surface – always provided you control the high orbitals. However, passive defences may well prevent accurate strikes and you’ll need an awful lot of strikes to winkle out well dispersed and dug in infantry.

          I may be totally wrong and this time the techies may deliver, but through most of my life the flash new weapons have not normally lived up to their initial hype, so I’m going to be sceptical until I see actual action reports.

          • Project THOR has many features over even hypersonic missiles.
            Impact velocity is closer to escape velocity than Mach 10.
            Time to target from an orbital launcher is bare minutes.
            Even a tungsten telephone pole is cheaper than a cruise missile; what killed the project was launch costs. Which is where the $3M per launch estimated cost for Starship/Superheavy is why SAC is interested. Plus the fast prep/turnaround time. One defining feature of SpaceX rockets is “fuel and launch”; the rocket can stay on standby for days and is only fueled just before launch. Which gave NASA pause to have the Dragon crews onboard while fueling until SPACEX proved the safety of tge aoproach.

            Finally, the chief virtue of kinetic strikes the way the US has been doing them since the 50’s is the simplicity of the impact vehicle. Plus, with current guidance systems the limited impact zone is a plus. It concentrates the impact into a fireball that effectively vaporizes the bulk of the missile. It’s optimal targets are bunkers and underground facilities. Of course, it can single-kill ships.

            Not sure if you’ve heard of the “Ninja” slice-n-dice predator, but the thing can limit the impact zone to a single automobile. (30 inches is the guess).


            Finally, the system shares the loitering ability of bombers, which allows early deployment with an option of recall/deactivation that hypersonic missiles don’t have. Its faster, cheaper, more accurate, and more flexible.

            All that from a 50 years old concept.
            What’s new is the prospect of quick and affordable deployment of the orbital projectile launcher.

            It opens the door to a different kind of warfare. Cheap and hard and expensive to counter.
            (Not saying it’s a good thing. Just that it is likely coming.)

            As for orbital gunships, the US is already deploying 50-100KW prototype close-in defense lasers. The range is limited by atmospheric dispersal. Which is not an issue in space. And with 150 Ton payloads there is ample room for orbital manuevering fuel, heavy armor and sensors, and a powerful laser for fast, long distance satellite clearing.

            This is something others will have soon enough albeit not as affordably.

            Both are the 21st century baring its teeth.
            Every new development comes with military applications and there is no reason to expect cheap and reliable space access to be any different.

            Useful story fodder, too.

            • Do you have any links to recent publications on kinetic weapons (ideally something with real equations and calculations)? I have to admit that my reading is not modern, the numbers I’ve seen mostly come from a RAND corporation note from 2002, and even this just gives (lots of) graphs of their results with no way of checking them, even in the case where they look obviously wrong. Of course, it’s mostly orbital mechanics plus drag coefficients so I should be able to reproduce it from scratch but I really don’t want to.

              Incidentally, I do wonder about the ability to single kill ships. In the two world wars AP rounds were notorious for going straight through unarmoured ships without doing too much damage (as their bursting charge was not detonated). You were much better off with 16″ holes in your sides and bulkheads than having an HP shell explode. Of course the velocities of the shells were a bit lower then KE weapons, to say the least, maybe Mach 2+.

              If a rod from the sky hit vertically might it not go straight through and expend most of its energy on the sea below? It would poke a hole all the way down and out the bottom but – unless it hit something vital on the way through – a reasonably sized ship should cope.

              • It might.
                Railgun projectiles do just that.
                Ditto for the new hypersonic artillery shells being deployed. No explosive, just solid steel at M7.3.


                But one big hole straight *down* isn’t as easy to deal with as a bunch of through and through ones above sea level. Structural integrity gets seriously compromised that way. And with modern precision you can kill a ship without sinking it. Say you target the Command center or the engines. Decapitation is just as effective.

                Besides, these new rods are going to be pretty massive and coming in hot. Between the launcher and say, ten rods, they have 150 tons to work with. They might not even go with tungsten on ship killers but with steel. Say an alloy with just the right melting point. it might simply…splatter…on the way through.

                The real issue is getting the pods into orbit quietly. Otherwise they’re just cheaper, non-nuclear ICBMs; great for all out war but no disincentive to avoid one, which is really the “best” feature of a 2000 bomb arsenal.

                Exactly how it all plays out depends on a lot of factors but the enabling capability is $10 a pound reusable heavy lift.
                And that is under development right now in Texas.

                They’ll likely crash a few before finalizing the software but nobody that has seen the synchonized triple booster landings of a Falcon Heavy launch has reason to doubt their ability to land the new system. (Falcon Heavy uses 27 synchronized engines; Superheavy is currently projected for 28 much more powerful Raptors, all designed for reuse and modular assembly in the booster.) SH looks quite doable.

                It’s worth remembering that Musk’s Mars talk is aspirational, 2050 stuff.

                The real action is what the system gets used to closer to home. (SpaceX personnel are looking into space debris reduction. The launch wilo be cheap enough it might be profitable to go capture dead hunks for recycling.)

                Superheavy will be disrupting the near Earth and lunar regimes much sooner than 2050. As early as 2022. Crewed missions? Maybe 2024, more likely 2025.

                Military uses? That’ll depend on the payloads.
                Thing is, this is all near term stuff.
                A lot of existing weapons and ships are about to be obsoleted.

                • Re “one big hole straight *down*”, this example is out of date and involved an early German guided missile, but consider HMS Uganda in 1943: “The Fritz X passed through seven decks and straight through her keel, exploding underwater just under the keel.” Most of the damage seems to have resulted from the eventual detonation rather than poking a hole through all the decks.

                  The ship survived and after repair transferred to the the HMCS and served in the Pacific and later – renamed as HMCS Quebec – was reactivated for the Korean War.

                • Remember, the hole won’t be random. Or cold.
                  How many destroyers can survive a through and through by molten metal through the control room?
                  Or submarines?

                  Modern munitions are ridiculously precise. The ninja missile has reportedly taken out rear seat passengers and left the driver alive, albeit covered in gore.

                  That precision is a combined result of spysats, GPS, drones, and battlefield networking. One development just starting to be deployed is what I’ve been calling “WingDrones” where a given F-35 can control a handful of fighter drones. It gives them a combat range beyond any missile short of an ICBM.


                  It is simply a whole new game that strongly depends on control of the orbitals. We’re well into the realm of SF already. If we can think of it, so has the military. And they’re doing it.

                  BOLOS? The russians are doing it.
                  LASERs? The US leads but everybody is doing it.
                  Railguns? BAE is leading.
                  Hypersonics? Everybody.
                  Drone war machines? The Azeris are beating up on the Armenians with *turkish* drones. The tech is *that* accessible.

                  There are even first generation prototypes for military power armor for the mop-up “boots on the ground” in Russia and the US.

                  That is just one of the reasons the idea of WWI type of Napoleonic mass armies is ludicrous. That went out by the 80’s. You need a seriously contrived scenario to make it even vaguely plausible.

                  (Notice how I brought it back to where we started? 😉 )

  2. To be honest, I am as skeptical of CCP-tolerared SF as I was of Soviet era russian SF.
    The CCP censors will not tolerate any meaningful exploration of significant ideas in any clear and accessible presentation. Which leave Chinese authors the choice of obtuse and deniable vs empty and meaningless.
    Neither interests me.
    Nor does Mr Liu’s enthusiastic defense of authoritarianism lead me to believe he has anything meaningful to contribute to the field.

    He is quite candid and forceful as expected of a chikd of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”:

    “When I brought up the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs—around a million are now in reëducation camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang—he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.”
    The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”

    I looked at him, studying his face. He blinked, and continued, “If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.”
    Yeah, indeed.
    Much more at the source.

    Big pass.
    I prefer cautionary tales or challenges to conventionality, not its glorification.

    • My impression is that China is a lot harder on dissidents than late period USSR was, so it would be pretty dumb not to parrot the party line. Of course, he may well believe it. He may also be right that the consequences of loosening up would be terrifying. Most revolutions do not end gloriously like an old Hollywood movie, yours was very much the exception.

      • “So, what do you think of the company’s brand new accounting system?”

        “Well, it sucks, and will never work. The stupid thing will crash, burn, and take down everyone in sight. What kind of moron approved this piece of crap?”

        “You’re fired.”

        • “With 9mm parabellum.”

          Liu’s literally a child of the cultural revolution.
          I see no reason not to take him at his word.

      • Actually…not.

        Post revolution loyalists didn’t leave out of principle but out of necessity.
        And the post-independence decades were a mess with fights over the (mostly toothless) central government, borders, and local governance. The current Consitution wasn’t the first and there were a couple dozen presidents between the declaration of independence and Washington’s inauguration.

        It never got to Reign of Terror levels but it was hardly peaceful and orderly. The Whiskey Rebellion wasn’t the only uprising of the time. And it came *after* Washington was in office.

        Back to Liu:

        And if the CCP were so concerned about internal stability, why are they sending hundreds of billions “colonizing” africa and buying a string of client states to encircle India?

        Talk is cheap, deeds aren’t and their deeds are expansionistic.
        When their Admirals talk of wanting to sink a carrier they aren’t talking of their own cripple and when they talk of taking back what is now Vladivostok, Putin doesn’t laugh it off. Chinese expansionism isn’t just a problem for Taiwan, Japan, and the south china sea.

        It’ll be everybody’s problem soon enough.

        • Yep, the post revolution period was messy, but I think it was still much to be preferred to France (the terror, power seizure by a faction, slaughter in the Vendée, “peace” by military dictatorship) or Russia (civil war, power seizure by a faction, party dictatorship, one man rule, even bigger mass slaughter) or quite a few other smaller but bloody affairs.

          As for China, they can simultaneously indulge in dangerous expansionism and clamp down internally for fear of loosing control. Indeed the two can feed each other.

          • Actually, the latter is part of the former.
            Never forget the millions of surplus males created by the one child policy.
            In their view it’s a twofer.

        • One of the fundamental problems for leaders in a totalitarian system is hubris.

          Fear of the consequences of bringing the Dear Leader bad news shuts down meaningful feedback from the real world.

          All the way through the power hierarchy, subordinates learn the cost of delivering bad news.

          That plus human nature makes totalitarian systems inherently unstable. They may last a long time (in human terms) and certainly take a terrible toll on their citizens and other nations, particularly near neighbors, but, I think, sooner or later, they will encounter a test that will cause them to collapse.

          The speed of the collapse always surprises most of the power structure and a great part of the ordinary citizenry. Some will always wish for a return to the good old days.

          That said, I’m not sure any would-be dictator ever really learns about the consequences that result from such a system. Or cares.

          Looking at the potential for collapse from a totally self-centered viewpoint, if he/she stays on the pinnacle for the remainder of his/her lifespan, it’s a successful system.

          Any belief system that implies there is individual existence beyond the grave is, at a minimum, irritating and may be highly destabilizing in and of itself.

          • “Après moi, le déluge” leads to even worse things than just floods.
            (Which in China are routine.)
            Stalin’s messes are still playing out over in Armenia&Azerbajian.
            Mao’s have yet to play out…

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