Review: The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series

I recently finished the science-fiction trilogy The Remembrance of Earth’s Past, by Chinese author Cixin Liu. The first and most well know book in the series is The Three-Body Problem. The team that produced The Game of Thrones is making a Netflix series about the trilogy so you’ll probably learn about the series soon if you haven’t already.

Cixin Liu’s trilogy has a lot of problems but in spite of that his science-fiction tour de force holds its own with the greatest epics in the genre, including Dune, and Foundation. Because it’s filled with more hard science than those classics, some, including me, place it at the top of the science fiction pantheon–and by a wide margin.

What’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past about? It’s hard to say without spoilers, but let me try this: attempting to contact alien civilizations, or even advertising your existence, is a mistake.

The trilogy is vast in scope. Starting with the recent past, the story moves into the distant future with the biggest time leaps reserved until the very end. For most of the series, we see the same characters. As might be expected given the author’s nationality a large portion of the series is based in China and many of the characters are Chinese. I am interested to see if Netflix will stick to the author’s vision.

A Cixin Liu characteristic is that he pushes hard science to its startling and often horrific conclusion. Nature (science), long in tooth and claw, is the trilogy’s main character. For a story based on speculative science, the author does an excellent job of avoiding magic science–science as a ‘just so’ story that renders it fantasy-level sorcery. There is no time travel or faster-than-light travel here (with some plot-spoiling caveats). He also avoids the rubbish ‘brain as computer’ meme that is popular. Although we sometimes see troublesome A.I.s, they nowhere approach the doomsday level predicted by some authors. One of the few areas where speculative science is assumed is cryogenics–preserving people by freezing them. In the series, this technology is practical and widely used. 

The author’s perspective is tragic; we care about the characters, all of whom are deeply flawed. Some of the most sympathetic characters make decisions that lead to disastrous consequences. Some of the most unsympathetic characters turn out to be right and their intransigence is heroic.  Time and again people ignore evidence and act instead on want they want to be true. 

The many worlds that the author evokes are fleshed-out and convincing; many scenes are rendered beautifully and masterfully. The few times his imagined worlds fail to convince, they remain entertaining. A first-rate imagination is on display here. Cinematographers will have a field day bringing these environments to life.

Readers who, like me, appreciate a good yarn will be happy to learn that Liu kept surprising me until the very end of the story.

Cixin Liu

Problems

When I started the series, I thought Liu was a scientist trying his hand at fiction and whose prose occasionally rose to the serviceable level. Liu is a nerd. He can draw out descriptions of technology, burdening the narrative with extra weight. The plot can sag under long-winded discussions about science that are the length of mini-essays. For example, an MMO (online role-playing game) plays an important part in the first novel by attracting intellectuals to solve its puzzles. This virtual reality meme plays an oversized role in contemporary science fiction, and–boy!–Cixin likes himself some MMOs. Sometimes the conclusions he draws at the end of these long-winded asides provide important plot elements, and they can be rewarding and fascinating in themselves. At other times not so much. This is especially egregious when he stumbles into purely speculative (and doubtful) science.

Some characters fall flat. The worst example is a hard-bitten Chinese detective who has a long-lived part to play. The author apparently intended him to be a Sam Spade-type character but unfortunately, he remained a jarring caricature.  Perhaps it was lost in translation. Speaking of translation, many of the non-Chinese characters seemed wooden or shallow, especially the Americans.

Maybe this will put the problems I encountered into perspective:

After finishing the series, I started reading Neal Stephenson’s newest science fiction novel, Termination Shock. Many consider Stephenson the top writer in the sci-fi genre. He wrote the three-volume series the Baroque Cycle as well as Cryptonomicon, and Snow Crash. I’ve read all of Stephenson’s books although I barely made it through the last one. I cannot finish his newest one. It’s boring. He is no doubt a better writer than Cixin–a better craftsman or journalist–but I’ll take Cixin’s stories over Stephenson’s any day.

Conclusion

The challenge with reviewing The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series is saying something interesting about the books without spoilers. The best I can do is repeat what I said at the outset, if you love science fiction, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the series. It should be on everyone’s list of greatest science fiction of all time.

 

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