Sunday, October 2, 2016

Death's End - Cixin Liu

Death's End is the concluding volume of a science fiction trilogy that started with The Three-Body Problem. These novels have been translated from Chinese, and that alone makes them stand out. Translations into English are rare in science fiction. Translations that win awards - The Three-Body Problem won a Hugo Award - are even rarer. Slowly, more attention for science fiction from outside the anglophone sphere is emerging and this series certainly played a part in that. Death's End takes Liu's vision to extremes. It is a book with a scope grander than we have seen in the previous volumes and as such, a fitting conclusion to the series.

The threat from the Trisolarans has, at least for the moment, been neutralized. By finding a way to expose the position of their home world to the galaxy, Earth now has a powerful weapon of deterrence. It is, in a sense, back to the cold war. The Wallfacer project was not the only one humanity started to deal with the crisis however. In this age of deterrence, a young Chinese aerospace engineer wakes up after many decades of hibernation. Her knowledge of one of these programs upsets the carefully maintained balance between the two species. Soon, Earth plunges into another crisis. This one even more lethal than anything they have encountered before.

The translation is once again in the hands of Ken Liu. As far as I can tell he did a splendid job. Liu translated the first novel, before handing over the reigns to Joel Martinsen for the second book. They obviously compared notes because the English version appears seamless to me. Although many of the characters are Chinese, the story takes place on a global scale or even beyond. Liu only needs eleven footnotes in a 600 page book, to explain a few phrases where the context might escape the western reader.

The main character is the Chinese engineer Cheng Xin. She is born in the twenty-first century and lives pretty much through the entire period of the Trisolaran crisis. Cheng takes a decidedly different approach to dealing with the crisis than Luo Ji, the main character in The Dark Forest. Where he sets humanity on a ruthless path of mutually assured destruction, Cheng doesn't care for the responsibility to condemn whole species to death and decide over the fate of whole solar systems. Her compassion proves to be costly in a universe where everybody is out to destroy everybody else.

I must say the parallel Liu draws between society and his main characters annoyed me a bit in this novel. Society swings from 'masculine' values to 'feminine values' and back again. From bellicose and ruthless, to compassionate and passive, and back again. These qualifications will have feminists all over the world up in arms. The idea that humanity needs an utterly ruthless man to survive the crisis and that by not following the examples of Luo and Wade (another powerful figure in the story, and a man devoid of any sense of morality), our species condemns itself to extinction. Whether or not it is desirable to follow a tyrant in wartime is debatable but surely this theme could have been handled without making it into a gender issue.

In the previous novel, the Trisolarans imposed limits on human technological development. After the start of what Liu calls the deterrence age, these limits disappear and humanity once again progresses in great strides. Liu's cosmology becomes ever more complex. His fondness for playing with dimensions and perspectives is given free reign in the book, leading to a number of memorable scenes. Once again, some parts of the novel reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama and the Fountains of Paradise in particular) but there is also a bit of Poul Anderson in the book. Specifically his novel Tau Zero.

Although we follow Cheng for most of the novel, Liu inserts sweeping passages where he explains global developments. They are none too subtle for the most part. Humanity in Liu's vision moves as a whole. There is little room in the narrative for dissent or debate. When presented with irrefutable evidence (something not many people in the west seem to believe in these days), the Earth as a whole decides to follow the inevitable path. Liu breaks the show-don't-tell rule on a massive scale in this novel. If that bothers you as are a reader, this novel is clearly not for you. Personally it didn't bother me beyond the fact that humanity seems to behave a bit more rational than I would expect them to do.

Liu takes the story to the end of the universe and beyond. It is a dark journey, one that offers little hope for any of the creatures inhabiting it. There is just a glimmer at the very end though. While this universe may be doomed, from its ashes, a new one may arise. Since it is a worst case scenario, the salvation of the universe relies on many parties doing something completely selfish. Given all that has gone before, it is no more than the barest hint of light in the dark forest universe.

Liu's trilogy evolves into space opera on the largest possible canvas. It is a trilogy that will awe the reader with grand vistas of the universe. While not flawless, the series has already shown that it is more than capable of finding a global audience. This novel manages to raise the stakes to dizzying heights, and forms a worthy conclusion of the series. I suspect it will turn out to be a favourite for many readers. If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be the first book. It shows us a bit more of Chinese society and that adds to the story in my opinion. For the pure science fiction fan, Death's End is probably more appealing. I do hope that the success of this series has opened the door a bit further for other translations. If anything, these novels show that there is a wealth of material to discover beyond what is written in English.

Book Details
Title: Death's End
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 604
Year: 2016
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-765-7710-4
First published: 2010

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