Cixin Liu is a big name in science fiction, being a winner of multiple awards such as China’s Galaxy Award, a Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Chinese Nebula Award. His work is prolific in China, where he’s experienced huge success, and adaptations of his work, such as the film The Wandering Earth, have made a name for themselves outside of China too. And now, the publisher Head of Zeus are bringing fifteen of his short stories to more audiences in graphic novel form in the series The Worlds of Cixin Liu.
The Circle is immediately very different from what I imagine a lot of people would expect from a series of stories from one of China’s most prolific science fiction authors. Just looking at the list of other books available in this series you’ll see covers with spaceships, weird alien looking structures, or the modern world clashing with futuristic advancement, so upon picking up The Circle I was surprised to find that the book deals with the past, taking readers back to 227BC.
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The story tells a fictionalised history of the very real figure Ying Zheng, the First Emperor of China. A man who, at this point in the story, has conquered a vast empire, and has named himself as the holy ruler sent by the heavens, Ying Zheng seems like a harsh but fair man, believing in the rule of law above all else. When an assassination attempt is made upon his life, where one of the assassins seems to have tried to prevent the killing, Zheng comes to meet Jing Ke, a well learned man who claims to have a secret that can help Zheng to achieve his goal of living forever.
Jing Ke tells the king that the circle is the most holy shape in existence, with the sun and moon being the perfect, circular heavenly bodies. He tells Zheng that by unlocking pi via mathematics, they’ll be able to uncover the formula of the heavens, and solve all of the woes of the world, including allowing Zheng to live forever. This begins a series of events that will lead to the creation of a living computer involving millions of people, a political coup, and more.
What is science fiction? Is it advanced technology, aliens, robots, and spaceships? It’s absolutely all of those, and they’re the most obvious trappings of the genre; but The Circle takes a different approach, by bringing real science to a setting one wouldn’t expect to see it in. It seems to want to ask a very simple question: what would a society 2000 years ago do if they wanted to create a computer? The result is kind of surprising, and yet feels incredibly grounded.
Liu goes out of the way to explain the science of it in the book, and there are pages that break down how a very simple system of people waving one of two flags can be used to calculate pi to one million digits. I’m not great with maths, and computing is even more beyond me, so I don’t know how much this checks out, but when you read it you really do believe that this could work, and that’s hugely impressive.
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Outside of this, the book also tells an interesting story of Ying Zheng, a figure from history who was something of a mixed bag if historical accounts are to be believed. According to history, Zheng became a figure who ruled through fear and cruelty, yet managed to bring together what would go on to become China, crafting himself as the First Emperor. And the book does a good job at making him into a believable person, with goals and flaws, and ambitions that drive his every decision. The book also gives an explanation as for his deteriorating mental state and slide into cruelty that feels believable; and answers the mystery of how this important figure from history died (something that we still don’t know for sure).
The story has been adapted and illustrated by Xavier Besse, an artist who also has a Masters degree in Art and Archaeology; a pairing that seems perfect for this book. The art on the book is very pretty, and has a very muted feel to it. It looks almost painted, with the colouring looking closer to watercolour painting rather than traditional art at times, which along with the delicate line work, ends up with a book that feels old. It helps to transport you backwards in time, with more muted and natural colours, with a style that looks like something someone of the era could have made, and it suits the setting perfectly.
The Circle might not be what you’d immediately expect from a science fiction story, but it’s incredibly creative, smart, and might just get you interested in mathematics, computing, and Chinese history.
The Circle is out now from Head of Zeus.
For The Benefit of Mankind is quite different from The Cricle, and probably more of what people would expect from a science fiction story. The story begins on modern day Earth, in a time where an alien presence has been felt for a number of years. Having appeared in the skies above our planet years ago, humanity has been told that life on Earth was not an accident, and that these alien creatures seeded life here in order to study humanity. What’s more, there are four other Earths in existence, with four other groups of human beings in the galaxy, all of which have evolved in different ways.
Perhaps the most shocking part of this revelation, however, is that another group of humans, being referred to as Earth’s Elder Brothers, are on their way to Earth, and that they will colonise the planet, taking it as their own. But this isn’t an extermination, as we will get to live on too, though locked away and isolated in one corner of the planet, whilst the Elder Brothers get everything else. The Elder Brothers have promised that when they arrive all humans will be given a subsidy to live on, as our wealth will be reset to zero. However, the amount that everyone will be given will be based upon the assets of the poorest person on Earth.
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Thus begins a mad dash to redistribute wealth, to make even the poorest person alive rich beyond their dreams, so that when the Elder Brothers do take over, those used to power and money won’t suddenly find themselves without, and that humanity as a whole doesn’t find itself trying to survive with nothing. But what happens when some stubborn people refuse to take the money? With the future of humanity riding on everyone becoming rich, these stubborn holdouts threaten everyone. In order to save humanity’s future, an assassin is sent out to deal with the problem.
The set-up of For The Benefit of Mankind is an incredibly interesting one, and one that I’m not sure that I’ve seen in many stories. It quickly becomes a scathing critique of rampant capitalism, and how the hoarding of wealth and resources can end up having a negative effect for all. It does this not just by having the super-rich capitalists having to desperately give away all of their money to try and ensure a decent future for themselves (with that same decent future for everyone else something they don’t really care about), but with the sections of the book that reveal what happened on the Elder Brothers’ world.
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‘Capitalism is bad’ is pretty much the central theme to the story, and in a time where so much of the world’s resources are hoarded by so few, where the destruction of the planet is continuing out of control so that those in control of big businesses can still make money, when energy companies report record-breaking profits but ordinary people can’t afford to heat their homes and we’re expected to suffer through rolling blackouts, where food prices are skyrocketing whilst wages stay low, it feels a pretty damn relevant story. But it’s not just a tale about how capitalism will destroy our way of life.
Mixed throughout the modern-day narrative are a number of flashbacks that give us insight into the life of Smoothbore, the assassin sent out to deal with the stubborn holdouts. The flashbacks begin with him as a young child, witnessing his father beating his mother, to the point where he kills her in his rages, and shows us how he becomes a killer for hire. Seeking help to deal with his abusive father, the child ends up on a path that will see him becoming a killer for hire. But despite being a man who kills dozens of people across the course of the book (and surely more that we don’t see), the book manages to humanise him in unexpected ways, making this a very grounded, human story despite the huge concepts going on.
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The story is adapted by author Sylvain Runberg, who does a decent job at translating the story and presenting Liu’s vision well. The art is provided by Miki Montllo, a comic artist and concept artist who’s worked on projects for video games and animation. The art style is wonderfully detailed, and the book is packed full of things to keep the eye entertained. Every panel feels real and alive, and doesn’t rely on blank panels with just character faces to grab your attention, instead filling every panel with a dirty, lived-in world that feels real. The book is beautifully coloured too, and the ways in which Montllo uses colour to indicate setting, era, and emotion works wonderfully. There are tiny things, such as changing the colour of the text balloons to indicate whether or not it’s set in the present that work brilliantly at helping the reader keep track of the story.
For The Benefit of Mankind is a wonderfully imaginative story; one that has a lot of heart and hope at its centre, yet feels awfully dire and grim at times too. It manages to juggle complex themes with a strong character focused story, and is a book that I can see myself going back to more than once.
For The Benefit of Mankind is out now from Head of Zeus.