Death’s End by Cixin Liu
New York. Tor. 2016. 608 pages.
Death’s End concludes Cixin Liu’s trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, which began with the multiple-award-winning The Three-Body Problem (2014) and continued with The Dark Forest (2015; see WLT, Sept. 2015 and March 2016, for reviews).
Those two novels told of humanity’s first encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization: the inhabitants of the planet Trisolaris in the Alpha Centauri star system. A highly advanced but doomed race, the Trisolarians set out in the spirit of the Martians in H. G. Wells’s seminal alien-invasion novel The War of the Worlds (1897) to conquer and colonize Earth.
The irresistible drive of Liu’s storytelling carried us through the continuous narrative of these two long novels to a point of apparent closure. The invasion is stopped before the Trisolarians reach Earth. The two civilizations come to an accommodation and initiate exchange of scientific, technological, and cultural information.
But The Dark Forest did conclude with a cliff-hanger: where could Liu take us in the third book? Surprisingly, he takes us back to the beginning, just after the Trisolarians have discovered the existence of Earth. He then retells the events of the first two novels from the viewpoint of new characters. Via an unexpected plot twist, he pushes that story further to a definitive end of the interaction of humanity with the Trisolarians.
But hundreds of pages remain. So Liu introduces a hitherto unmentioned, far more deadly alien threat and plunges humanity into a crisis on a truly cosmic scale, one that encompasses multiple universes and billions of years.
Liu is a maximalist. His novels abound with detailed discussions of politics, philosophy, sociology, and, especially, science. His specialty is the conceptual breakthrough: a revelation that radically alters our perception of the universe.
Liu’s universe is inherently immoral, a vast space where innumerable advanced civilizations clash in Darwinian struggles for survival. Its defining dynamic is “[a]n eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out.” The central philosophical question of the trilogy is: Are the human qualities of empathy and morality incompatible with such a universe?
What Death’s End lacks is a character who is sufficiently well realized to ground us in story as we plow through this effusion of exposition. Its central character, Chinese aerospace engineer Cheng Xin, is too underdeveloped to carry the novel. When, as often happens, she is offstage for long stretches, we lose emotional contact with the story, and Liu’s ceaseless torrent of ideas and information threatens to turn the book into nonfiction.
Although Liu’s ambition sometimes exceeds his abilities as a novelist, Remembrance of Earth’s Past is a major contribution to modern science fiction not only for the worldwide attention its success has drawn to Chinese science fiction but also for its imaginative, richly detailed future.
Michael A. Morrison
University of Oklahoma