Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Short Story Review: The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin

Science fiction is at its best with short stories. This medium is just long enough to present the basic outlines of the setting, but short enough to pack an emotional punch. The Wandering Earth by Liu Cixin was an amazing sci-fi the likes of which I haven't read in a long long time.While I usually review novels or novellas only, this deserves a mention on this blog.

The Wandering Earth is a hard sci-fi story. That means it focuses heavily on the science behind the premise of the story. It doesn't necessarily mean it is correct, but it presents it as completely plausible. In this case, astronomers discover the Sun will undergo a helium flash and the subsequent red giant phase much sooner than anticipated. A colossal effort is taken to prepare the Earth for an interstellar voyage of epic proportions. Rather than building spaceships, the entire Earth will be moved to the nearest star system. The grand scope of this journey is staggering. It is not a journey of 100 days or 100 years, but of 100 generations. The short length of the story further emphasis the briefness of human lives in such timescales.

While the scope is grand, the focus of the story is personal. We follow a single character as he lives through several phases of the initial part of the journey. Like many classic science fiction stories, The Wandering Earth presents aspects of social commentary on how humans band together to overcome their odds. And how they are sometimes their own worst enemy. Despite clinging to hope, the story is filled with sadness and I was left in a melancholic state as I reflected on the story.

A short story with an epic scope yet personal touch, The Wandering Earth deserves to be read by any fan of classic science fiction.



I wanted to point out a few things regarding the science. They don't detract from the story, but as an astronomer I found them odd. I only present them here in case you want to learn a little accurate science.

The journey takes them to Proxima Centauri, but this is an M-type flare star. It is faint, red, and has flashes of activity emitting lots of ultraviolet radiation. As a faint star, the Earth would have to be uncomfortably close in order to be warm enough, possibly even close enough to cause it to be tidally locked. It would not be an ideal place go make a new home.

At one point, the characters gaze at the night sky and find Proxima Centauri. Oops! Proxima Centauri, at magnitude 11, is too faint to be seen with the unaided eye (most people can see to 6 or so)! It's also quite removed (by several degrees) from Alpha Centauri so it's not a trivial manner to find it.

Finally, the whole premise of the story is that the red giant phase will happen earlier than expected and in a very rapid and unexpected manner. In actually, the Sun will continue it's normal life for the next 5 billion years. It will however grow brighter so that the Earth will be scorched long before the Sun swells in size to engulf it. I don't know if the helium flash would be an observable phenomenon (my specialty isn't post main sequence evolution), but one has to remember that light from the center of the Sun takes several thousand years to escape out to the surface. Even if something crazy where to happen in the core of the Sun, we wouldn't see visible effects for millennia. That being said, neutrinos, tiny particles that rarely interact with anything, can pass through the Sun unhindered. By observing neutrinos we can see if anything odd has happened in the core of the Sun. Nevertheless, without this change from the expected evolution of the Sun there would be no story.

In the end, the story is excellent and these three things are just a few minor things I noted. They in no way weaken the story (the last one is required, actually). I'll certainly be checking out other works by Liu Cixin.

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