November 03, 2020

To Hold Up the Sky

By Cixin Liu
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Short stories in science fiction are frequently answers to questions. What if, an author wonders, an incomprehensibly powerful alien being were inspired by an ice sculpture? Or what if there were nations in cyberspace, separate and distinct from their real-world counterparts? What if a world on the brink of annihilation could be saved by a poet? Or a teacher?

Each of these questions is explored in a story in Cixin Liu’s new collection, To Hold Up the Sky. These stories span three decades of his writing career, from 1985 to 2014, and although many have been published before, all are new to his English-speaking audience. As with any writer over such a long period, Liu’s style evolves from the earliest stories to the more recent ones, and yet they are all immediately recognizable as his work.

In some ways, Liu's point of view is rare among science fiction novelists of his international stature. Unlike most of his peers in the Western science fiction scene, whose worlds frequently comment on fundamental human failings or the dystopian struggles of an inconsistently ethical society, Liu’s work is suffused with an understated optimism. To Hold Up the Sky is no different. In fact, he hints at this in the foreword, where he mentions that in his writing, he is always attempting to depict “the relationship between the Great and the Small.” To him, the “Small” is all of humankind, and at this project's core, there's a presumption that humans are always more united than we are divided, that our communal nature is our defining characteristic as a species and that free will, along with the frailties and flaws that it allows, is essential to that collaborative instinct. (And yes, that does sound like a contradiction, but this is addressed and dispensed within one of the stories in To Hold Up the Sky.)

This realistic but positive outlook is shared by a few other science fiction writers—Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Becky Chambers and Iain M. Banks come to mind—but rarely is it as essential to a speculated universe as in Liu’s prose. As a result, few writers achieve quite the same flavor of optimistic apocalypse or infuse existential dread with such a tangible thread of hope. Throughout To Hold Up the Sky, Liu brings his collections of ice sculptors and poets and computer scientists and military engineers teeteringly close to oblivion. He does so knowing that the crisis is finite, and that humanity in its feeble entirety will either survive, learn and grow, or simply . . . stop. And he insists that there is beauty either way.

I am not certain if I agree with this sentiment. It is both too cynical and too idealistic for me. (See? Yet another contradiction!) But either way, Liu is far too good a writer for me to put this book aside.

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