In my review of Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey, I compare reading it to reading Asimov’s Foundation when I was a kid.
I’m going to make the same comparison with the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” series by Cixin Liu. Reading this awakens the same sense of discovery and amazement as reading Asimov when I was a child. Liu gifts us a story that’s astounding in scope and vision, with some of a biggest Big Ideas in science fiction.
The English translations of Liu’s work boast an admirable level of stylistic polish. There’s a spare and refreshing lyricism at work here. I’m as impressed with the quality of the translations as I am with Liu’s story.
This is what science fiction should be. I’m in awe of Liu’s imagination and accomplishment.
I’m not even going to try to sum up the plot of this trilogy. Partly because I don’t feel up to the task, with so many narrative threads woven together, but partly because I’m afraid that a blunt summary will diminish it. This is profound and wondrous work. It’s complex, it’s unexpected, dark and foreboding yet hopeful, and it’s one of the grandest in scope of any SF trilogy I’ve read.
Instead, I want to talk about why I think it’s rewarding and important to read works written by foreign authors. Especially if those works fall into a genre you know well. (I address this same idea in my review of Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.)
What I appreciate most about these works is the opportunity to experience a different kind of storytelling tradition than what I’m used to. Chinese stories function differently than American or European stories. Their storytelling traditions evolved differently, and boast different narrative techniques and standards.
I find that I enjoy how these differences subvert my expectations of the genre. Because I’m a lifelong fan of SF, my expectations for this kind of story are strong. The subversions of those expectations are consequently more powerful.
In Liu’s work, these differences manifest in two main ways:
First, the psychology of the characters is less important than I’m used to. All stories in all storytelling traditions seek to answer the standard questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. But different traditions find their own unique balance of these.
In American fiction, there’s a strong focus on the psychology of characters—we spend a lot of time exploring why characters do what they do, their motivations and thought processes. The “why” is prominent.
The characters in Liu’s work are fully psychologically complex but he spends very little time delving into it. That’s not what his story needs. The focus here is strongly on what they do and the effects of their actions. The “why” matters far less.
The challenge for me—having spent my life immersed in the modern American fiction tradition—is to accept that I don’t need to understand the “why” of the characters as fully as I expect to, in order to move along with the story. To surrender that expectation is difficult.
With a story this wonderful, the rewards of such surrender are immense.
Another difference is that Liu’s characters don’t have the kind of fleshed out development arc that I expect. Each character, while fully psychologically complex, seems to just be, without the reader witnessing them become, as if we meet them at the end of their development arc. Of course, such a statement is self-evidently incorrect, as the sort of development arc I refer to doesn’t exist in these novels.
Characters behave according to touchstones and standards that are unfamiliar to me. With less emphasis on the “why” of them, their behavior feels less like a choice they make and more like an inevitable act. Less free will and more fate. (This statement imposes Western standards on a Chinese story, so take it with a grain of salt.)
From the perspective of Western storytelling, these characters feel more like characters from mythology than an SF novel. That lends them a powerful presence. I don’t know if this is how the characters feel to Chinese readers, or if this is an emergent effect born of the interaction of Chinese and Western expectations.
It occurs to me that this experience of learning to understand characters and narrative devices that function in ways that are very different from what I’m used to is analogous to the characters in Liu’s novels attempting to understand an alien culture. Which helps explain why these novels resonated with me more deeply than many other “alien contact” novels I’ve read over the years—all those other books were American authors writing for American readers, so the story itself never subverted my expectations or left me grappling with foreign behaviors as this one does.
The last major difference is harder for me to articulate. Simply put: characters don’t argue with each other. And that’s weird to me.
This statement captures the sense of it but it requires more explanation—characters disagree with each other throughout the novels, and there’s plenty of interpersonal conflict, but they hardly ever argue.
A character will state their position or belief about something, and another character will state a position or belief which disagrees… and that’s it. They each make their statement, and there may be one or two more sentences exchanged, but there’s rarely any argument beyond that, few attempts to persuade or convince the other to change their mind. Characters seem to just accept that they disagree with each other and move on.
Every time I expect characters to go at it with each other, they don’t. It’s weird. Liu includes some American characters in the story and this is the one thing that makes them less believable to me than the Chinese characters: Americans would argue more. It rings false when they don’t.
It’s tempting to account for this as another example in how Liu’s storytelling tradition handles character development and psychology differently than mine, and it may reflect cultural differences between Americans and Chinese: perhaps Chinese people are less argumentative than Americans.
But I think the truth is more deeply structural. To explain what I mean, I need to talk about stichomythia.
Stichomythia is a technique that dates back to the classical Greek tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Wikipedia (*) defines it as:
a technique in verse drama in which sequences of single alternating lines, or half-lines (hemistichomythia) or two-line speeches (distichomythia) are given to alternating characters. It typically features repetition and antithesis.”
Basically, stichomythia is when characters go back and forth with each other for a while.
The Greeks used stichomythia as a formally structured poetic technique and a rhetorical device, but it more commonly refers to any extended exchanges of short statements between characters in a story.
Stichomythia has a long and prominent role in shaping how Western storytelling handles dialog. Pick up any American popular fiction book today and you’ll see quite a lot of stichomythia. Watch any American television shows or movies, and much of the dialog is stichomythic.
Having spent my life immersed in the modern American fiction tradition, I expect characters to go back and forth with each other in impassioned argument.
When I say that characters in Liu’s novels never argue with each other, it’s simply that he never delivers stichomythic exchanges. I wonder if Chinese storytelling never developed a tradition of stichomythia. If, perhaps, Chinese storytelling simply doesn’t handle dialog this way. Perhaps Chinese readers have no expectation of it.
Disagreements between characters are handled according to different narrative traditions than what I’m used to. My expectations are for something that Liu’s storytelling tradition doesn’t utilize.
Another odd behavioral quirk of the characters which is really a narrative thing:
Occasionally, a character will state that they figured something out, or finally understand some inexplicable aspect of the situation, but they’ll offer no details as to how they came to this conclusion… and everyone just accepts it without comment or rebuttal. As thought the truth of what they say is self-evident and no alternate possibilities exist.
I admit: I found this aspect of Liu’s writing a bit infuriating. I’m not comfortable meekly accepting it when a character says, “This is what’s going on!” with no further explanation of how they know that, without more a detailed defense of their conclusions—without other characters questions them. I wanted the characters to show their work, so to speak. It’s disconcerting to me when they don’t.
Again, this seems like a character issue but it’s not. There are some things that need to be true in Liu’s fictional universe in order for the story to work the way he wants, and these things need to be revealed to the reader at the proper times in order to be most effective. Whereas an American author would reveal these aspects of the story with explanatory paragraphs, Liu puts them into the mouths of characters and asks the reader to accept them as true without comment. It’s a different way of handling the same narrative need.
The fact that American authors would attempt to explain the salient aspects of their fictional worlds in some depth, and Liu doesn’t, suggests an interesting cultural difference: perhaps Chinese culture places a higher value on acceptance and American culture places a higher value on skepticism. I honestly don’t know the answer to this one, but reading Liu’s work makes me want to learn more.
What impresses me the most about the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy is how effective and powerful the storytelling is, despite that fact that I’m largely unfamiliar with the storytelling tradition it comes from. I’m struck by how well I relate to the story even though some aspects of its narrative structures and expectations are foreign to me. It delights me to see how well Liu has adapted the tropes of a dominantly American science fiction genre to his own culture.
It also makes me exquisitely aware of just how much I’m missing: there’s a whole world of significance, symbolism, reference, and idiom in these works that I’m not even aware of. It makes me want to spend more time delving into Chinese literature, to learn more.
Good storytelling is good storytelling, no matter where it comes from.
* As a librarian, I feel a bit guilty for citing Wikipedia. but of all the online definitions I looked at (Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, the Oxford English Dictionary, etc.) Wikipedia’s was the most useful.