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Underground Reading: The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin

PIA09070The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin is a staggering vision of a post-Apocalyptic world. Or, more accurately, post-post-Apocalypse. When scientists discover that the Sun is turning into a Red Giant a few billion years ahead of schedule, Earth's governments unite to find an escape from destruction. The Spaceship Faction proposes city-sized spaceships. The Earth Faction propose something even wilder: that the Earth itself be removed from orbit and slung across space.

The Earth Faction wins the debate, and an uneasy truce is forged. Enormous "Earth Engines" are bolted across the planet - huge matter-consuming fusion drives. As the world's population moves into enormous subterranean cities, the Earth is slowly stopped in its orbit, slung around the Sun at an increasingly velocity and then flung out into the reaches of space.

At least, that's the plan.

The story is told from the point of view of a single inhabitant of the future Earth - a child born right as the Earth is stopped in its orbit. Through his eyes, we see the monumental changes that the world and its inhabitants go through. And "monumental" is underselling it. Everything in The Wandering Earth takes place on an unimaginable scale. Every catastrophe takes millions of lives, everything built is miles high or miles deep, and by tens of thousands. The Wandering Earth is a quest for a species; one that dwarfs individual involvement.

As such, the main character is no more than an unnamed everyman - worse, as he is completely assured of his own unimportance. The role of the individual, of one human, is meaningless when set against the great plan. Against a backdrop of melodramatic scientific achievement, the narrator casually describes how artistic achievement is now rendered meaningless, with all religion and philosophy also rendered moot - all discussion tabled until the Earth is safely removed to a different part of the galaxy. Accordingly, all human elements of the story are rendered deliberately flat. Family relationships, romance, friendship - all described with a listless distance to them.

This stands in stark contrast to the lavish description of physical events - the freezing of the Earth's oceans, the rise of Jupiter as the Earth passes by it, the thunderous impact of meteros on the planet's surface. Liu Cixin slyly eschews any description of the intangible, but captures the the impossible time and time again:

"As Jupiter continued its terrible rise, it gradually occupied half of the sky. We could then clearly see the tempests raging in its cloud layers; chaotic, swirling lines of those storms dazed all who beheld their maddening dance."

The novella's brutal conclusion brings together both threads in a series of unexpected twists. Individual needs - subsumed for so long for the greater good - rise up, prompted by a shocking betrayal. But the author continues to surprise until the final page. The result is a book that both inspires - portraying at it does the scope of desperate (human) ambition - and terrifies. The survival of the species may be the noblest of goals, but that doesn't make the species itself any 'better' for it. This isn't an "AT WHAT COST?" narrative - Liu Cixin makes the costs abundantly clear from the first paragraph. The moral instead that, whatever grandiose tasks we may achieve - for good or for evil - we are who we are: only human.


Published in 2000, The Wandering Earth has been translated into English and is on sale as an eBook via Beijing Guomi.

Image credit NASA/CXC/STScI/JPL-Caltech/UIUC/Univ. of Minn.