To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu
In my review of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I stated I thought the novel had gone on too long and noted that while it wrestled with “a lot of big ideas … I just wished such questions had been surrounded by richer characterization and a defter writing style.” It turns out I had pretty much the exact same reaction to Liu’s recent collection of short stories, To Hold Up the Sky (2020).
To speak generally of the collection, Liu offers up a lot of intriguing thought experiments and creates some truly evocative imagery. Unfortunately, these strengths were, for me, mostly outweighed by a paucity of engaging or compelling characters, a lot of heavily talky exposition in nearly every story, and some frequently stilted language (which may be the effect of translation and not a weakness of the original text). Typically, with short story collections, I’m satisfied if I enjoy more than half of them (I’m thrilled if it reaches three-quarters), but while there were a few that I liked, I can’t say this collection of eleven tales reached that minimum standard, and even among the ones I enjoyed none of them blew me away. A few specifics on some of the better stories; unnamed ones didn’t do it at all for me:
“The Village Teacher”: This was a rare story in the collection where the human element was stronger than the sci-fi one. Here, a story of a dying teacher and his background was quite touching, but the way in which his story intersected with an alien contact felt both forced and too blunt.
“The Time Migration”: A neat method of showing humanity’s progression (or not) over time as a group of time refugees go in and out of stasis until they can find a suitable time period/environment. One of the better stories, though not a lot of human connection here.
“Sea of Dreams”: A strong story about the necessity of art (not the only story with art at its core), though one that goes on too long (again, not the only one), though somewhat paradoxically, I wish it had gone more slowly. I guess what I wanted was for it to not go so far forward in time and explore more deeply some of the repercussions of its events on the characters and the world.
“Cloud of Poems”: Probably my favorite, though again, a bit too long. Another story of the intersection of art and science, this one focuses on the “unsurpassable” nature of poetry, even for an alien whose technology makes them a god.
“The Thinker”: One of the quieter, more human-centered stories that spirals outward in grand fashion. I liked the intimate set-up and the cosmic (literally) close.