To Boldly Go

Speaking of science fiction… My friend Ken recently put me on to a new author – new to me, that is – whose books I am avidly gobbling for my holiday reading just now. His name is Cixin Liu, and I can heartily recommend him to aficionados of ‘hard’ Sci-Fi. By that I mean Science Fiction with big ideas, embracing the whole cosmos, and alternative civilisations and human – or other – conditions that force us to think anew about our own. My great heroes in this kind of genre have always been HG Wells (The Time Machine), Ursula le Guin (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness), and Olaf Stapledon (Starmaker and First and Last Man): writers whose minds soared above those of the rest of us, but from a basis of genuine scientific knowledge – chemistry for Wells, anthropology for le Guin, philosophy for Stapledon – which stopped them sinking into mere ‘Fantasy’. (Although le Guin is celebrated in that genre too.)

Cixin Liu is Chinese, which gives his writings an interesting dimension for Western readers; and his scientific ‘base’ is IT. You’d have thought that might make him slightly nerdish. But not at all; he too soars magnificently, and into so many different ‘alternative’ futures and situations as to make one wonder at his imagination. I started with his best-known work, The Three Body Problem, whose science I barely understood, but without that making much of a difference to my enjoyment of it.  Just now I’m reading The Wandering Earth: a collection of longish ‘short stories’. I’d recommend that as a starting point. After these, I have, happily, two more to read.

I hate it when people equate Science Fiction with Star Wars, Star Trek, and other popular examples of the genre which are really no more than Westerns with rocket ships. The best SF is cerebral. Even for a historian, engaged in the actual past, reading it can put that past into a context that no other genre of writing can.

I have to admit, however, that I initially acquired my love of SF at the age of 10 from the ‘Dan Dare’ strip in the Eagle. That was really based on World War II: with the Treens as Nazis and their evil leader, the Mekon, as Hitler with a big head. (Since then he’s reminded me of Dominic Cummings: https://bernardjporter.com/2019/09/11/separated-at-birth/.) There was nothing to really stretch the imagination there. But what more could you expect in 1951? And the great Frank Hampson’s artwork was superb.

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