Arts book review

Out of China, a monumental addition to the sci-fi genre: Death’s End

Cixin Liu’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning series closes with spectacular final act

7916 death's end
Death's End hit American bookshelves on Sept. 20.
Tor Books

Death’s EndBy Cixin Liu
Tor Books

September, 2016

Rarely does a work of science fiction present such a novel and sweeping view of the universe as Cixin Liu’s latest novel, Deaths End. The book, published in Chinese in 2010 and translated into English this month by Ken Liu, concludes a critically acclaimed trilogy in a spectacular manner, earning it a place alongside the greatest science fiction epics of all time.

Each of the preceding books focused on human nature and the future of technology on a grand scale. Liu’s work lands firmly in the ‘hard science fiction’ category: sci-fi with a focus on the ‘science,’ infused with math, computer science, physics, astronomy. In fact, Liu’s writing often goes overboard on the technical details, and it becomes apparent when Liu is pushing plot mainly to showcase his philosophy of the future. However, critics didn’t seem to mind — The Three-Body Problem, the first book in the trilogy, stole the 2015 Hugo Award, one of sci-fi’s most prestigious prizes.

At the beginning of the series, The Three Body Problem follows an academic as he copes with scientific anomalies and inconsistencies that have begun arising in the world of physics — a mystery that ends up being a turning point for humanity. The second book in the series, The Dark Forest, builds on this, tackling a well-known enigma of the universe: the apparent lack of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Death’s End follows yet another underling of academia, Chen Xin, a young researcher with big ideas and, more surprisingly, a compelling sense of humanity. One thing which seemed to be lacking in Liu’s earlier protagonists was a sense of empathy for their fellow humans. Frankly,the previous characters were a little boring. Inscrutable thinking machines, they stuck unwaveringly to their course, set back only by scientific confusion. However, in Death’s End, Chen struggles with visceral moral choices. Once again, Liu sets the protagonist up with the chance to save humanity, but this time, the character’s choice seems more real and the consequences feel more dire. Perhaps the uninteresting personalities found in the first two books can be attributed to cultural differences, or perhaps it is an artifact of Liu’s style. In any case, Chen’s depiction, which is a severe departure from this style, presents a nuanced symbol of humanity’s endurance as well as its weakness.

Woven throughout Liu’s story are commentaries on human behavior and group psychology. Although individual characters, such as Chen, are given interesting dilemmas to ponder, it’s clear that Liu would rather spend time on characterizing humanity as a whole. How does humanity face a common threat? Often, short-sighted government heads allow progress to be stifled by international squabbles. Eventually, as humans leave earth, new questions arise. Should extraterrestrial humans even be called human? Are men and women still human even a million light-years away from home?

In terms of sci-fi fare, Liu delivers his usual well-crafted showcase of ideas. What makes Liu’s fiction unique is that the science fiction interest doesn’t simply emerge from the introduction of a new technology, but from key shifts in realizations about the universe. The characters and the audience experience revelations together, discovering answers to fascinating questions. Reading Liu’s work is best compared to zooming out from a fractal: the reader looks, wide-eyed, as the larger picture becomes gradually clearer, until a new form emerges. But Liu’s new forms also contain vast new dimensions, eventually constructing an indescribably beautiful set of ideas.

One such concept is technology, the most coveted prize in Liu’s universe. Every civilization starts out the same — as a child, not versed in the basic rules of survival, fighting to attain a foothold on life. In such a crowded universe, there is bound to be someone much weaker, but there’s also the guarantee of the infinitely stronger. Only the climb from infancy up the technological ladder can save a fledgling species, like humanity, that wants to make a dent in the history of the Milky Way.

In Death’s End, Liu takes us all the way to the end of the universe. The finished series leaves the reader with an awed impression of the scale and darkness of the universe. Above all, the Three Body trilogy imbues us with an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of the dark nature of the universe, but also an indomitable faith in the beauty and diversity of life and civilization.