Short Story Review: Yuanyuan’s Bubbles, by Liu Cixin

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Liu Cixin began to publish Science Fiction stories in 1999. Considering the works he had done before the first publication, he had had decades of experience in writing by the time The Three-Body Problem was completed in 2006. Yuanyuan’s Bubbles was written in 2004, at a time when Liu Cixin had accumulated enough momentum in his writing career and had dozens of short fictions and three full-length novels under his name. So, it will not be too farfetched to say that this is a story written when his skills had been fully developed. As it stands, the effect is satisfying.

The concept of bubbles is frequently seen in science fiction stories. Human lives in space must be supported by a large bubble with air, water and food in it; during faster-than-light travelling in the hyperspace, a bubble of normal space is usually maintained for the benefits of the passengers; a bubble of static time could be created so that whoever inside the bubble could be preserved and travel forward in time. But no, the bubbles in this story are simple soap bubbles, a plaything seemingly without any significance.

The story follows the lives of a daughter and her farther, starting from the birth of Yuanyuan, a girl who has a great enthusiasm for soap bubbles. As Yuanyuan grows up, her unusual hobby does not fade away. She searches for ways to increase the size of her soap bubbles and the length of time the bubbles remain in existence.

In this story, as well as in some of his other works, Liu Cixin focused the themes on practical matters, instead of hypothetic alien invasions as in The Three-Body Problem. In a way, this is a different type of story, not the ones about the stars and the universe, which he is most motivated to write. However, the story itself lives up to his reputation. Part of the reason is that Liu Cixin constantly looks for new ideas that can bring in the sense of wonder, such as in many stories during the Golden Years of Science Fiction. In a recent interview, Liu Cixin said, the novelty of the ideas and the sense of wonder was what he strived for and he believed that these were the fundamentals of all science fictions, and that the beauty of science fiction came from the exciting moments at the edge of transformation. This kind of belief is a prominent anchor of his creativity, which eventually propelled the birth of The Three-Body Problem.

Yuanyuan’s Bubbles is not a very long story, and most of the time, it keeps you guessing where this is leading to. Yuanyuan tries every other way to improve the technology of creating soap bubbles, but to what end? This question is not answered until near the end of the story. Another line of development in the story is the affection between Yuanyuan and her father. After Yuanyuan’s mother dies in an accident, they are the only ones to each other, Yuanyuan with her liberal, fantastical thinking and her father the diligent mayor of a small city in the northeast part of China. When Yuanyuan is still a little girl, her father is always a bit baffled at the unorthodox ways in which his daughter thinks. Then, in later years, when Yuanyuan becomes a successful scientist, her love for her father eventually brings in a solution to the problem that has troubled the people for years.

Unlike Liu Cixin’s many other works, there are no rockets and spaceships in this story, but the bubbles have a different type of wonder and delicacy. It is an airy delight without weighed down too much by burdens, a deviation from Liu’s usually heavy and grandiose settings, but equally enjoyable.

[The English version of “Yuanyua’s Bubbles” was translated by CARMEN YILING YAN, published on Clarkesworld Issue 111, December 2015.]

 

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