Chris Roberson is a prolific American science fiction writer and publisher (MonkeyBrain Books). He has written many novels and short stories, with alternate history as a frequent theme.
In 2009, he won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for his novel “The Dragon’s Nine Sons.” The novel, together with other related novels and short stories in the Celestial Empire series, is based on China’s 15th century “Treasure Fleet” voyages.
The “Treasure Fleet” voyages, from 1405 until 1433, took place during the Ming Dynasty, and are unique in world history. These voyages extended China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Eventually the fleets reached India, the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa, before the 15th century voyages of Portuguese explorers via the Cape of Good Hope. The voyages ended as political, social and economic problems mounted.
In the Celestial Empire science fiction stories, the Imperial Chinese power continues to grow. A struggle for global power develops between the Chinese and the Mexica (with origins in the Aztec Empire). Eventually China becomes a space-faring superpower.
The short story, “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small” is about Ling Xuan, who as a young scholar, was an observer and chronicler on a Treasure Fleet to the Mexica. The story is set many decades later. Ling Xuan has been a political prisoner for many years, in the dreaded imperial Chinese prison of the Eastern Depot Building in the Forbidden City.
What interested me most about this short story was how Roberson conveys through the character of Ling Xuan, the seeking of new knowledge and of challenging accepted wisdom. Though Ling Xuan is imprisoned, his mind and spirit remain open to learning. He learns a great deal about astronomy from another prisoner, Cui, the former head of the Directorate of Astronomy. Cui is in prison because he had challenged the notion that the wisdom of the ancient astronomers was sufficient. Through Cui, Ling learns to think of knowledge as growing and changing, and of Earth as one of many worlds revolving around the sun, and of seeking new and different worlds, perhaps even in the stars.
Chris Roberson: “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small”
Reprint source :
“The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Fifth Annual Collection”, edited by Gardner Dozois, (c) 2008. (from sci fi stories published in 2007).
It is the twenty-eighth year of the Kangxi Emperor. Ling Xuan has been a political prisoner for many years, in the Eastern Depot Building, in the Forbidden City. The Eastern Depot consists of different areas for different types of prisoners.
The Outer Depot is for those prisoners who are thought not to be particularly dangerous. Some have been tried on treason or other charges, but still await sentencing or a reprieve. Others like Ling Xuan end up in the Outer Depot because they are unlikely to confess. The prison cells have doorways opening on to an open-air courtyard, where the prisoners, men and women, spend their days. Guards watch the prisoners from two towers atop the walls of the courtyard.
As a young man, Ling Xuan was a highly respected scholar and official in the Bright Dynasty of the Shunzhi Emperor. When the emperor died, the Manchu Clear Dynasty reasserted its power. The young Kangxi became the next emperor. His regent, Aobai, replaced all the officials of the former Bright Dynasty. Ling Xuan was charged with treason and imprisoned in the Eastern Depot Building. For a while, he was in the custody of the Emperor’s dreaded secret police, the “Bureau of Suppression and Soothing”. Ling Xuan was then transferred to the Outer Depot.
Cao Wen is an ambitious, junior official in the Ministry of War . He is given the responsibility of gathering information for a planned invasion of the Mexica. He searches the archives for information about the voyages to the Mexica, made during the earlier Bright Dynasty. In the list of titles of archived materials Cao finds reference to a narrative of a Treasure Fleet journey to the East, across the oceans, to the Mexica, to Khalifa, and Fusan. The author of the narrative is Ling Xuan. But the narrative, like a great deal of Bright Dynasty material, has been lost when the Clear Dynasty came to power.
Ling Xuan is now an old man, and spends his days in the courtyard, of the Outer Depot, seated quietly in the center, following the movement of the shadows cast by the watch towers, as the sun moves overhead, from morning to evening.
Ling has an excellent memory, but he does not reveal what he knows straightaway. For the first few interviews, whenever Cao Wen asks questions relating to the Treasure Fleet voyage, Ling talks of time, its measurement, about astronomers and observatories. He recalls his days as a young scholar in the Bright Dynasty.
When he was first imprisoned, Ling Xuan was in a dark cell, with no window, but a hole high up on one of the walls. The prisoner in the next cell was Cui, the former head of the Directory of Astronomy. Cui and Ling talked at night, through that hole. Ling absorbed everything that Cui told him about astronomy, and his observations of the stars using a telescope, a “Remote-Viewing Mirror” .
Ling talks now of how the Mexica believe that this world is the most current one in a series of worlds created by the gods. He remembers all of the journey to the Mexica, including an overland journey to the capital city. Ling had a basic knowledge of Nuhuatl, the language of the Mexica. His guide was Hummingbird Feather, an officer of the Mexican Army. Ling gathered information of the Mexica society, their beliefs and traditions, and their military. He saw steam-powered trolleys, and steam-powered automata.
Cao writes fast and furiously with his ink-brush. Then Ling asks to borrow the telescope that the astronomer Cui had talked about, before he will provide more information. Cao swallows his anger and pride, and goes through the necessary lengthy bureaucratic process, and gets the telescope. Ling continues to talk of the Mexica army, its organization, armament and defense.
From the small window in his prison cell, Ling has been able to observe some of the stars that Cui had talked about. Now with the telescope in hand, Ling spends one night in the courtyard, seeing more stars….
Next day, Cao Wen asks one final question – about the automatons. Ling replies that he will provide one vital piece of information if he can go out, for one night, outside the Eastern Depot, to view the entire sky with the telescope. Cao is very angry, but again he gets the necessary authorization, and this time the Emperor Kangxi himself approves it.
Cao and Agent Gu of the Emperor’s Guards escort Ling away from the lights and buildings, out to the open public square of the city, where the sky can be seen glittering with stars.
Ling tells Cao that Cui was imprisoned because he had questioned and challenged the wisdom of the ancient astronomers. Cui had come to believe that our world is not at the center of the universe. Our world is but one of many worlds that revolve around the sun. Perhaps some of the stars are suns themselves, and perhaps some of these suns have worlds circling around them, and perhaps some of these worlds have people living on them.
The Mexica understanding of the world and the stars is not founded on observations, but on ancient beliefs of unchanging worlds and history. Ling believes that China can conquer the entire Universe if it challenges accepted wisdom, and seeks new knowledge and understanding, beyond that which is known, to new and different worlds.
That night, Ling dies in his sleep. His work is done. Cao writes up his report about Mexica, and attaches to it a report about the astronomer Cui.