Review- Liu, “Death’s End”


Liu Cixin, “Death’s End” (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) (2010) – At one point in Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” his roving guilt-ridden alcoholic millionaire narrator Eliot Rosewater crashes a science fiction convention. He drunkenly praises the assembled writers as “the only ones who’ll talk about the really terrific changes going on,” “the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limit.” Eliot admits that the scifi writers “couldn’t write for sour apples” but still holds them in high esteem next to the modernist boobs his foundation generously funds: “the hell with the talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born.”

Liu Cixin is exactly the sort of writer Vonnegut had in mind, fifty years after the fact. His “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy (though apparently everyone in China — where apparently it’s near Harry Potter levels of popularity — just calls them the Three Body Problem books) spans hundreds of years (technically millions) and concerns at least three or four interstellar civilizations and dozens of important characters. “Death’s End,” the last, longest volume, could easily be a trilogy itself, dealing with at least three distinct phases of Earth’s struggle with its first alien contactees, Trisolaris, and against the predatory Hobbesian chaos which Liu depicts as the cosmic baseline. The scale — and the abandon with which Liu throws himself into it — is worth the price of admission for people with that particular itch. You know who you are.

Liu also fulfils the other part of Eliot Rosewater’s soliloquy on scifi. It’s too much to say he “can’t write for sour apples.” Among other things, he might be a shit-hot prose stylist in Chinese and get lost in translation, but even with that he gets across some of his crazy shit in space in fine aesthetic fashion. But his characters are, by-and-large, thinly drawn, especially in this last volume as compared to the first. It’s almost as though as the action leaves Earth, the characters leave human emotional reality… which is something Liu would agree with, to judge from some events in the book (generation-ship passengers getting all weird), but not in the way I mean.

At bottom, characters in “Death’s End” are extensions of and stand-ins for Liu’s main concern, technological models for humanity’s future in space. The main character, Cheng Xin, is an astrophysicist from our time who, due to (oddly convenient) hibernation technology, winds up alive, awake, and relevant to stages in human development centuries apart. She is also the receptacle for Liu’s ideas about gender, which take a much more central role in this book than in its two predecessors.

Cheng Xin is brilliant and morally good- too good, Liu argues, basically because she’s a woman. Twice, her compassion and unwillingness to end lives lead her to immensely destructive decisions. The first time she refuses to hit a deadman’s switch that would lead to the destruction of both Earth and its Trisolaran invaders. Trisolaris nearly destroys humanity but is stopped by people — men — outside of Cheng’s decisionmaking power doing some dimensional biz. The second time, she does the one thing a nerd like Liu will never forgive- she declines to invest in faster-than-light travel. There’s many risks involved in FTL (including potentially alerting uber-powerful galactic neighbors), and once again, Cheng’s femininity won’t let her take them. Then, wouldn’t you know it? Some other alien species entirely sends a weird thing that turns the Solar System into a flat stanley — a dimensional weapon — and people can only get away on faster than light ships! If only that lady hadn’t stood in the way of science with her lady-concerns!

For what it’s worth, Liu doesn’t indulge in the troweling-on you get in other (Anglophone) scifi. In fact, he doesn’t clearly blame Cheng at all- several surviving characters (there are still a few humans around, due to earlier interstellar voyages) point out that the decisions she made were complicated and no one could know the right choice. They also point out that an interstellar future for humanity isn’t necessarily an unalloyed blessing- the universe is a dark place, full of super-powerful, amoral space powers constantly doing insane things to each other like turning other civilizations into Flat Stanleys or slowing down the speed of light somehow. But the basic conflict in the book still hinges on gender essentialism- Cheng’s essential femininity (in the storied tradition of gender essentialism, held to be the sole possessor of virtues men like to profess as good but don’t want to actually have, like compassion) vs the cold hard logic of men/the cosmos.

I don’t know where the gender conversation is at in China, or where Liu is in the Chinese gender conversation. But you don’t need to be a radical critic of gender roles to get that there’s some pretty hard women (and a lot of men who maybe aren’t the suicide-bomber type) out there. You’d figure anyone would be able to consult their own experience — or, failing that, watch the news — to get that point. Like Paul Cao, who tipped me off to this aspect of the book when I reviewed its predecessor on here, I look forward to reading a thorough feminist critique of the series. I’m not equipped to do that myself.

So, where are we at the end of the Three Body Problem? We’re in a space of infinite possibility — Liu has a gift for imagining awe- (and terror)-inspiring feats of science and engineering — and bottomless fear. There’s no real solution to the Hobbesian mess of the “Dark Forest.” No one opts for Iain Banks’ fully-automated gay space luxury communism, or if they do they don’t last. The more advanced space civilizations — the kind that can unilaterally rob a solar system of one of its dimensions — aren’t any more enlightened than the Red Guards whose actions in the Cultural Revolution impel Ye Wenjie to start Earth down the path into the Dark Forest to begin with. A certain degree of escape is possible — if you can flatten three-dimensional space, you can also carve out bubbles in time — but even that endangers the rest of the universe (though you have to wonder why anyone with the opportunity to quit the game would care about the other players- that’s kind of the point). Arguably, we need to chuck the universe and start again at a higher dimensional plane- that’s the closest to hope Liu holds out.

What happens to the Solar System and most of humanity due to Cheng’s soft-headed refusal is depicted in such a horrific, pathos-laden manner that it’s hard not to reflexively wish Cheng hadn’t put the kibosh on lightspeed. But on the time scale of the universe, he tells us, it barely matters. There’s still almost a hundred pages of book left after the Solar System and most of humanity gets 2-d’d, after all. Liu clearly sympathizes with the hard-headed (read- nerdish) men who want to take to the stars. But his pessimistic take on the universe won’t let him depict expansion as the key to utopia. Survival is closer to a universal law in Liu’s world than anything else (certainly more than the supposedly base-line speed of light!)… but survival, and the universe, is morally disinterested and highly dangerous in its own right… and we’re stuck with it. ****’

Review- Liu, “Death’s End”

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