Books/The Wandering Earth

From Knowledgebase

Author: Liu Cixin
Translator: Holger Nahm
Genre: Science Fiction

Liu Cixin's books are not for the faint of heart. You might come for the grandeur but should have the stomach to handle the tragedy. The author doesn't like to indulge in drama. Though he has a great narrative style, he feels the need to remind the reader once in a while that the universe doesn't give a fuck about humanity's grand projects. There will be consequences to actions and the price has to be paid one way or the other. Having your cake and eating it too is for Twilight fans. There are hardly any happy endings in his books and his readers quickly learn not to expect them. His protagonists don't fight the universe and win. They try to do their best with what the universe lets them do. Sunshine and rainbows might be portrayed, but not without a thunderstorm right before it.

TheWanderingEarth.jpg

The Wandering Earth is set 5 billion years into the future where humanity's cultural norms differ significantly from ours. The author has made an effort to not deviate too much from today's world which might make the story inaccessible to readers. Earth is trying to escape the red giant phase of the sun. Humanity is busy executing its biggest engineering project - dislodging the earth from its orbit and fleeing away to the Alpha Centauri star system and going into orbit around one of its three stars. The entire story is told from the perspective of one ordinary person in whose lifetime the earth leaves the solar system. The story has to stop there since the narrator's lifetime is limited.

The Reining Age

I’ve never seen the night, nor seen a star; I’ve seen neither spring, nor fall, nor winter. I was born at the end of the Reining Age, just as the Earth’s rotation was coming to a final halt.

The first step in the process is to stop the rotation of the earth. Colossal Earth Engines bigger than mountains are constructed on two the two tectonic plates of North America and Asia to push the earth in two directions. These engines use heavy element fusion reactors. They can just take rocks as input and push the earth through the equivalent of jet propulsion. Living on earth in China is like staying close to the tail end of a rocket. The Earth Engines have permanently changed the climate of the earth. The sun's heat is negligible in comparison to the amount of heat produced by their fusion reactors. It's always summer in the northern hemisphere. Rain gets scalding hot. The author is happy to kill off the narrator's grandfather just to make a point of how hot it is outside with the Earth Engines operating at less than full capacity.

I didn't appreciate how advanced the science and technology of that age were while reading the first few pages of the book. People live in houses on the earth's surface with outside temperatures reaching 160 to 180 degrees (Celsius I suppose, since the translator isn't American). When they go out they wear thermal protection suits which have built-in refrigeration units powered by fusion batteries. Nuclear fusion itself has advanced so much that they are able to use rocks as fusion fuel. Heavy element fusion is referred to as an "arcane" field of study indicating that it was mastered a long time ago. Humanity seems to live in energy abundance. It's a Level 2 civilization on the Kardashev scale.

The narrator's kindergarten takes a global educational trip in a so-called "bus". It's actually a fusion powered flying bus. Inter-continental travel is trivial and within the reach of ordinary people. People travel between continents in their own personal flying cars. All of earth is ruled by a single government, so inconveniences like visas are eliminated. It takes time to understand how kids at 3 to 6 years of age have such advanced scientific knowledge. This is billions of years into the future. Humans have managed to find ways of transferring some of their knowledge to their offspring, so human babies aren't born as blank slates.

Humanity had 400 years to prepare their escape. One might expect a civilization as advanced as this to be able to leave the earth in space ships and terraform planets in other solar systems. That is indeed within their capability. This caused two factions to form - the earth faction and the spaceship faction. The problem as one might expect, is still the speed of light. Spaceships would take a long time to reach even the nearest star. Entropy would destroy any miniature biosphere a spaceship might have within it given such a long time. The earth would take 2500 years to reach the nearest star. Spaceships would go faster than that but their internal biosphere wouldn't survive the journey. That's the reason why they decided to transport the earth itself though its biosphere would be significantly damaged in the process, but would survive the journey. A hundred generations is a long time, considering the fact that our current documented history is only about that long. One oddity is that human life expectancy hasn't significantly increased considering the level of technology of that age.

The Exodial Age

Once the earth's rotation has stopped, it is time to dislodge it from its orbit. This requires the Earth Engines to run at a greater capacity which increases earth temperatures to unbearable levels with extremes of heat and cold. People in the northern hemisphere have shifted to subterranean cities. People of this age are so focused on survival that things like exclusive romantic relationships have taken a backseat. Polyamory in marriage seems to be common. Marriage doesn't seem to have a lot of significance either, except to get a license to have a child.

The planet is ruled by a single government called the Unity government. This government seems like a benevolent version of the current day Chinese government. It is worth noting here that Liu Cixin is a staunch supporter of the CCP and everything it does. So his version of a benevolent government doesn't come as a surprise.

The first stage of the process of reaching escape velocity is making a long elliptical orbit around the sun. This orbit at its longest stretched about as far as Mars. The oceans freeze and thaw based on whether it is perihelion or aphelion. People do have the freedom to go to the surface whenever they want provided they heed the government's warnings about safety. People lived in the constant fear that the Helium flash from the pre-red-giant sun would fry the earth at any moment. They worry that it might be too late to escape. The earth has changed so much that they called the previous times the Pre-Solar Age. Though the Helium flash would take a 100 years to complete, humans living under the surface would be roasted alive before the earth itself gets vaporized.

The Exodial Age soon became an age of catastrophes.

The Earth Engines slightly displaced the earth's iron-nickel core causing huge magma leaks into subterranean cities. The evacuation process is without sentiment. Citizens are ordered by age from youngest to oldest and evacuate in that order. Babies are separated from their mothers and are instead evacuated by robot nannies. The narrator's mother is over 40 years old at this time and is among the 18,000 who don't make it out in time. It is never clarified in this novel why the human lifespans are so short billions of years into the future. I'd have expected each human to live 400 years. Genetic memory engineering makes it so that humans don't have to spend a lot of time on education but that doesn't make up for extremely short lifespans.

The Unity Government holds Olympic Games to distract people from their cruel reality. The author participates in a motorized sled rally race. He meets a Japanese woman stranded at some point on a frozen ocean. Since he was not going to win the race anyway, they continue their race together in his vehicle. That was enough time for love to blossom. They marry at the end of their race and also win the lottery to have a baby. The government allocates them a subterranean home in Asia.

The next wave of disaster is when the earth passes through the asteroid belt. The narrator's father works as an officer who is responsible for clearing asteroids out of the way. They use anti-matter bombs to break up asteroids into smaller pieces. Still, a lot of big meteors falls to the earth, creating routine dinosaur-extinction-level events. The narrator's father dies due to asteroid impact. Giant tsunamis and dust clouds that block out the sun are commonplace. The author is somehow kind enough to put the narrator's father in a single person spaceship when he died. I didn't understand why he'd limit collateral damage there. To make it more tragic, perhaps. The narrator receives a posthumous medal of his father.

The earth's fifteenth elliptical orbit would take it close to Jupiter. The plan is to use this gas giant's gravity to slingshot the earth into reaching escape velocity. The narrator is finally able to see stars since the Earth Engines on this continent are not in operation. Jupiter was big enough to fill the entire sky. The gravity of course causes mega tsunamis. People are like meh about tsunamis by this point.

It was under the dark red shadow of Jupiter that my son was born, deep beneath the Earth.

Rebellion

The Earth Engines are running at full capacity, accelerating the earth away from its home into the dark expanse of the cosmos. This would continue for 500 years. The harsh lifestyle imposed on the people, optimized for survival is slowly getting to them. People are more likely to believe conspiracy theories in situations like this. A new conspiracy is formed that the sun was never going to explode and that this whole project is a conspiracy of the Unity Government. Their evidence is that the sun hasn't changed at all in the past 400 years. The narrator's wife becomes a believer. She leaves her son with him, takes up arms to fight the government and eventually dies in an armed conflict somewhere in Australia.

The rebellion's ideas spread like wildfire. The narrator being a loyalist like his father before him still puts his faith in the government (Liu Cixin and his unwavering loyalty to the CCP all over again). The government's troops are decimated with only 10,000 of them left. The Interstellar Migration Committee is composed of 5000 people. The rebellion wants to punish them for their crimes against humanity. 400 years have passed since the beginning of the project. The Helium flash is overdue. The Supreme Executive Officer makes the decision to surrender to protect the Earth Engines from being destroyed during the conflict.

But we ask that the people remember that we, the five thousand who stand here, from the Supreme Executive Officer to every last private, stood firm in our convictions to the very end. We know that we will not see the day that we are proven right, but if humanity should endure eternally, all will eventually come to shed tears before our graves. This sphere called Earth shall be an eternal monument in our memory!

The 5000 members of the committee are sentenced to a cruel death by freezing in negative 150 degrees on the frozen ice of the ocean in a ceremony witnessed by a hundred thousand people. I find it hard to believe that humanity would still be such a cruel and vengeful species nearly five billion years into the future. It is enough time for life on earth to again evolve from scratch. Anyway, the rebellion shut down the Earth Engines and started making plans to go back into the sun's orbit. The author decided to indulge in a little drama at this point. As the 5000 members of the Earth faction turn into frozen statues, the sun finally starts the first phase of turning into a Red Giant, swallowing all the terrestrial planets up to Mars. The prophecy from 5 billion years ago comes true.

The Wandering Age

The narrator seems to have lived a longer than average life, being at about 70 or 80 years age at the time of this chapter which happens 20 years after leaving Pluto's orbit. Humanity continues to live 300 feet underground. The narrator is expecting a grandchild. The Earth Engines are running at full power, probably the ones on the North American side. The sun is so far away now that there isn't enough heat to keep the atmosphere in gaseous state. The earth's surface is covered in yellow and green crystals made up of Oxygen and Nitrogen respectively. In 500 years, the Earth will reach 0.5 percent of the speed of light, cruising along for 1300 years and decelerate in the remainder of the 2500 years.

The narrator laments the 100 generations that will not see a blue sky and sings an old man's song, a song of hope for the distant future.

In time, I will be gone,
So far our voyage wandering,
But call me at the dawn
When the East glows in light rising.

In time, I will be gone,
So long past the journey began,
But call me at the dawn
When the sky above shines blue again.

In time, I will be gone,
So distant our solar story,
But call me at the dawn
When the trees bloom with fresh glory…