We are mundane, on the scale of the cosmos. Our size is so small as to be negligible. But to each individual, existence feels profoundly unique. The stories in Cixin Liu's collection To Hold Up The Sky investigate the push and pull of these two forces, the vast and the trivial. They explore the individual taking actions that cause the world to change, proving that a human can have an effect on things larger than her comprehension—yet they never cease to remind the reader of how small we really are.
This writing is not for the faint of heart; Liu will test the limits of the reader's imagination. But he plays fair in the sense that his special effects are earned. Practical and scientific detail abounds. There is a masterful range here. In one paragraph the reader travels from the side of a teacher trying to do his job with no resources, to the edge of a dead-star battle zone in the heat of a galaxy-wide war. And more than that, Liu forges a connection between these two places, tinged with his tone of bitter optimism—bitter in that it doesn't deny fear or suffering or pettiness, but optimistic in that it doesn't give up.
What makes the stories appealing is their variety of interplay between humans and creatures that, due to their advanced technology, seem like gods. In other cases, characters encounter an earth invention that grants a god-like ability or power. Types and motifs emerge from all of this, preoccupations that Liu works and reworks. Readers of Liu's bestselling novel series Remembrance of Earth's Past will see plenty they recognize, notably iterations of the sophon. Nevertheless, the science in these stories displays an incredible versatility.
The characterization often falls back on stereotype, however. For example, one prominent type is the brilliant scientist who can see much farther ahead than those around him, becoming a fish out of water. "Contraction" provides the earliest example of this stereotype in Professor Ding Li. He is the smartest man in the room, even a room full of astrophysicists, for having written a unified theory that predicts a universe-wide event. Like a cruel soothsayer, he enjoys toying with the assembled experts, demonstrating how no one really understands his theory or its practical consequences. Thematically, "Contraction" drives home the idea that knowledge is a special ability that gives characters security in the most extreme situations. While everyone around him panics at a revelation they can hardly comprehend, Ding Yi smokes a pipe and intones, "No matter." The entire setup reads like a performance for his own amusement, and he becomes almost sinister in his control of the situation. Insufferable as he is, his existence suggests that intelligence and the ability to acquire knowledge are perhaps the greatest currency anyone can possess. Whether or not one agrees, it is a thought-provoking idea.
In contrast to the professor type, we have artist Yan Dong in "Sea of Dreams." She is an ice sculptor as well as a scientist. Though she lacks the foresight and celebrity of Ding Yi, when the alien entity comes to earth, it is interested in her ice artwork. Yan Dong becomes entangled in arguments with the alien, who refers to itself as "a low-temperature artist." This iteration of the special human is not entirely desirable, however, as it becomes clear that the alien won't speak to anyone else, and has absolutely no regard for what it terms "an infant civilization." At a critical moment, the low-temperature artist reverses its opinion and decides, after Yan Dong disagrees with it repeatedly, that she is not a real artist at all.
Despite everything, Yan Dong certainly has guts, as many of Liu's protagonists do. She does not balk at flying up in a helicopter to walk out on a giant ice satellite, in an attempt to reason with an alien ice god. And she experiences, during their initial encounter, "an endless moment of unparalleled wonder" at this being's abilities. Yet if you're looking for a deeply nuanced portrait of an individual psyche, this is not the place. Liu is writing from his love of science and technology. Characterization is the weakest point of his craft.
The story "2018-04-01" uses an "I" narrative point of view. It is the only story in the collection to do so, and not coincidentally it is the most forgettable. Very little distinguishes the nameless narrator from wallpaper. His observations and desires are banal. When his girlfriend Jian Jian breaks up with him, he laughs. Mere sentences earlier, he had described her as "something delicate that could be snuffed out at the slightest breeze." When gene extension becomes a commercialized procedure, meanwhile, he contemplates an embezzling plot to steal from his company. He anticipates serving the prison time, and then living out the remainder of his Extended years. Instead of considering the implications of a potentially eternal life, he makes a spontaneous choice, which he then rationalizes by claiming, "The times always get better"—which is a phrase he picked up from Jian Jian, not even an original thought.
However, despite the irritatingly shallow characters, the scenario that the story lays out definitely raises some ghoulish questions regarding the pace of technology, and the stagnation of ethics and law in comparison. "Mirror" highlights Liu's strengths more clearly: suspenseful pacing, twists and turns, governmental intrigue, human fragility. In this story, technology is going to pull people into a new era, and it all starts with one hapless nobody playing around on a superstring computer. Bai Bing describes himself as a regular guy, but he has a pet obsession: a desire to model a simulation of the Big Bang. For that audacity, he is being hunted. Looming over the chase is the terrifying set-piece of the mirror, a computer program invented by Bai Bing that gives him access to harrowing amounts of information. The reader is reminded of Liu’s recurring theme that knowledge is power—and possibly even a transcendent power at that.
The escapades in "Mirror" are highly entertaining, then, albeit shadowed with deeper implications, which Liu nods at in the final scene. In that brief coda, Liu shows us an American professor at work inventing the mirror right after Bai Bing does. The lowest point of To Hold Up The Sky, meanwhile, is easily "Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming." More than in anywhere else in the collection, the characters in this story felt like stiff puppets in a chaotic military display. The story’s military-tech lingo requires its own index to understand. One protagonist, Major Kalina, is an egregious example of the female superhero badass, always cool under fire, never stepping outside of type to become a believable person. Her love interest (because of course she has one), Misha, is marginally more interesting, taking a more complex view of his world. But at the end of the day, everyone's motivations in this story can be boiled down to the simple directive of “do as you're told.”
The catch in "Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming" is that Misha is no longer resident on earth; he is alone in a space station. One hundred million kilometers from earth, completely alone in a huge space station, Misha still phones home to take orders from his military general father. That's not a character so much as a robot executing commands. But it was its melodramatic, sacrificial ending that really ruined this story’s overall effect. Cixin Liu's endings are usually a bit more nimble, or at least present an intriguing turn that changes something about one's understanding of events. In "Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming," however, he reaches for human pathos, and shoots wide of the mark. After all, what Liu cares about is what he excels at: prodding the frontiers of science, elaborating complex concepts into flesh-and-blood scenarios.
One of this collection’s stories productively breaks this mold: "The Village Teacher." Its descriptions are packed with sensitive details, evoking daily life in poor, rural China. Mister Li, the eponymous teacher, single-handedly keeps his village school running. When scrappers show up to strip the roof, he attempts to fight them off, earning two broken ribs. Li views himself as "hope for the children," and even though he's the most educated person in town, he does not run away to seek a career as a successful and lauded scientist.
While Mister Li fights his battle on the ground, a much larger war is unfolding overhead: Mister Li's story ultimately intersects with the path of an interstellar fleet, though he will never know it. Once again the reader is made to feel the contrast of scale: a few human lives against a universe full of creatures so advanced they use stars as weapons. The compelling thing about Li is that he has no idea what he's really teaching these kids for; and yet he persists. For his dedication, he becomes a kind of unsung hero, but he does not achieve this position by intention, exactly. The entire portrayal of his character is more nuanced than expected.
Li remains unusual in this, however. Still, even though there is a general lack of complexity in the psychology of this collection’s characters, it's not necessarily something that detracts from the whole experience. It may even be palate-cleansing for readers to read these different types of story that aren’t submerged in a singular perspective. To play out its thought experiments, To Hold Up the Sky requires a big stage—and consequently the human level sometimes disappears. While these stories aren't perfect, however, they are ambitious in their scope and can be mightily entertaining.