Cixin Liu – Death’s End (2016) Review

Death's end

  • Genre: Science fiction
  • Series: Remembrance of Earth’s Past, part 3
  • Pages: 604
  • My rating: 9/10

Like the Harry Potter series, Cixin Liu’s Three Body trilogy starts out with a small book, then bloats towards the end into an epic story that exponentially increases in scope. Looking back at the first book, The Three-Body Problem, it is already obvious that Liu never wanted to restrict himself, but to reach for a story that would range far and wide across space and time. The second book, The Dark Forest, ended some 200 years farther into the future. The final novel does not directly follow on that one, but first jumps into the past, and to the year when the Wallfacer Project started, to follow other developments, before jumping farther into the future.

It’s a very unique series, and very stimulating and unpredictable. You never know where the story is going to go next, but after two books I got the faith that Liu would show me more cool ideas. Where other writers create a future world and then set their stories inside that world, for Liu the creation of the future is the story, and the relationships are in service to the plot. Many scenes are set in UN buildings where mankind is working on secret projects to save the future. At the core of the novel are a couple of personal stories. One is a troubled love story that spans the centuries, and is closer to a fairy tale than anything realistic.

Before saying that I actually love this book, I have to go on a little rant.

Cixin Liu’s ideas about romance are still – like in the previous novels – so juvenile that my neighbors can hear my teeth gnashing. Sometimes, single lines give this away, in which Liu injects a dramatic aside about a horribly unrealistic romance. Moreover, the main character of the novel is part of one of such stories. In this story of romance, a guy is dying from cancer. In his final days, he remembers a girl who once talked to him in high-school, many years ago. He never had contact with her again, but he then decides to spend his bazillion dollars to buy this girl the rights to a star at 280 light-years away. And then when he is ready to commit euthanasia and about to pull the plug, that girl comes rushing in to wet his chest with her tears. Oh, please.

Granted, this snippet turns out a little bit different later on in the story. But the men in Cixin’s novels don’t talk to girls because those men are too “humble” for the glorious rays of sunshine that are the women, and the women are some kind of idealized puppets who are too kind and humble to be leaders and are ready to melt when men buy them stuff. In the previous book, The Dark Forest, a similar event made me groan when the main character Luo Ji is given a girl who was found by his agent as his perfect partner, and the girl just went along with it, all the while admiring Luo’s sacrifices.

Death's end2

The complete series

The romances are not in service of realism, but in service of plot development and drama. Everything in these novels is “in service of plot development” in a very explicit way, because this is how Cixin Liu’s trilogy approaches science fiction. This trilogy is a unique blend of physics, sociology and philosophy that concerns itself with the movements of humanity as a whole and its place in a cosmic setting. In this, Liu’s work closely resembles that of the old SF giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Asimov’s Foundation trilogy might be a good comparison.

There are so many twists and turns in this series, and so many striking ideas, that when you look back at the first book it is amazing how far we have come. If we set aside the issue of romance for a moment, then we can see that there is a quality to Liu’s science fictional ideas that makes my mouth water for more. This series is an instant modern classic. The very premise of an alien invasion fleet stranded at the edge of our solar system because of a desperate human action is brilliant in the tension that it brings to the story and the implications for humanity. The interaction between two civilizations is fascinating to see unfold.

The novel goes deep into the exploration of how humanity might respond to an extinction-level event. Liu makes a lot of points about how human society changes from era to era and how the past keeps being reinterpreted. Space exploration efforts from centuries ago may end up forgotten, and then crop up again to provide solutions. How humanity chooses its leaders has great influence down the centuries. And finally, we move into the far future and strange, four-dimensional science. A strength of Death’s End compared to the previous books is that a single character, Cheng Xin, is present at all these happenings, as opposed to a large cast of Chinese names that get hard to remember.

There is social commentary in the story that might be more easily spot by Chinese readers than Western readers. The future ages show some parallels to Chinese past, especially when Cixin Liu talks about “the Great Ravine” which could be replaced by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and famine and the propaganda posters of Earth’s optimistic efforts to defend the mother planet and the solar system. In the book, later generations no longer identify with this past, just as Chinese society is growing towards a new future.

Overall, I really like this series and I look back at it with fondness. It’s just the strangest combination of fairy tale love stories and ideas about humanity and future that are so bizarre that I want to explain them all to my friends – but I can’t because of spoilers. Will the future really be like this? I don’t believe it for an instant, but it is a fun ride.

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5 Responses to Cixin Liu – Death’s End (2016) Review

  1. bormgans says:

    It’s funny: you are totally right about the romances, and it should have been obvious to me too, as it is so loud and clear, but I never registered that ‘fault’ consciously. That’s maybe because it organically feels part of Liu’s style. There’s a lot of that childlike naivety in his short story collection The Wandering Earth too, so I guess I just took it for granted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mensrea3 says:

    I never really thought about the romances of Liu Cixin like that but you are right. I think the third book was not as great as The Dark Forest but overall it is an epic speculative history of human kind. I really enjoyed your review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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