Cixin Liu’s novel “Death’s End,” concluding a brilliant trilogy that began with “The Three-Body Problem,” belongs in the pantheon with the greatest works of Arthur C. Clarke.
by Cixin Liu
Tor Books, 608 pp., $26.99
In Cixin Liu’s novel “Death’s End,” the only human embedded in a hostile alien culture tells the woman he has long adored a fairy tale about an ancient kingdom where an artist does away with people by imprisoning them in his exquisite paintings.
Later, the brightest minds of the woman’s world study the story from every angle, looking within it for the secrets that will allow them to save humanity, maybe even the entire universe, from annihilation. They find remarkable things, including the possibility of changing the speed of light. But they never exhaust the story’s gifts.
Like those scientists, I can pull many marvels out of “Death’s End,” the final book in Liu’s mind-blowing science-fiction trilogy: space cities orbiting Jupiter, an unexpected view of our reality from inside the fourth dimension, the deliberate bursting of a star — and the tender regard of a man for a woman (and vice versa) that carries each through centuries of struggle. But, unlike the malevolent artist of the tale, I’ll never be able to contain Liu’s riches in a simple document.
Instead, I’ll simply gape in amazement at a trilogy that belongs in the pantheon with the greatest works of Arthur C. Clarke, one of Liu’s self-declared precursors. Liu offers brain-busting thrills for the reader who thrives on hard-science speculation, but has plenty of love for the troubled human conscience, too.
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Liu, 53, a former power-plant engineer, has sold more than 1 million copies of the novels in this trilogy in his native China. Ken Liu’s English translation of “The Three-Body Problem,” the trilogy’s first novel, won the 2015 Hugo award. Ken Liu, a graceful writer of speculative fiction himself (no relation to Cixin Liu), also translated “Death’s End.”
In “The Three-Body Problem,” humanity makes first contact with the Trisolarans, whose harsh, unstable world is approaching destruction. Unfortunately for people, the technologically superior Trisolarans have decided to colonize Earth and wipe out the human vermin. In the second novel, “The Dark Forest,” creative-thinking astronomer Luo Ji lands on a deterrent that will slow the Trisolarans down.
“Death’s End” plays out the implications of the “dark forest” theory that stellar civilizations, in the effort to ensure their own survival, would tend to destroy any other civilizations whose existence they discovered. For a time, humanity is in a tense stalemate of non-exposure with the approaching Trisolaran fleet, while pursuing multiple possible solutions to its own survival.
While Luo Ji returns in “Death’s End,” the novel’s chief (but far from only) viewpoint character is Cheng Xin, a young woman who will several times be placed in the position of making critical decisions about human survival. Through long periods of hibernation, she lives over centuries, bringing a world view not unlike our own into futures dizzyingly changed.
Either through conscious homage or contact with the archetypal substrate, “Death’s End” evokes great moments of classic science fiction: the black monolith of Clarke’s “2001,” Larry Niven’s “Ringworld,” and particularly the interdimensional thought experiments of Edwin A. Abbott’s “Flatland.” (In a most surprisingly place, the novel also quotes “Gone With the Wind.”)
Cheng Xin lives out Sheldon Kopp’s sobering dictum that important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data, but we are still responsible for everything we do. I would not want to be in her shoes, but I am grateful for the ride that she, Luo Ji and Cixin Liu have taken me on, and highly recommend it to you.