Death’s End by Cixin Liu

Head of Zeus, 2018, 729 p. Translated from the Chinese, 死神永生 (Sǐshén yǒngshēng) by Ken Liu. Published in Interzone 278, Nov-Dec 2019.

Science Fiction is often said to be the literature of ideas. If that is where your pleasure in it lies, Cixin Liu is certainly the author for you. His Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (the first two of which, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest, were reviewed in Interzone 261, with all three having now been published in paperback with a themed set of covers) throws out SF concepts with abandon. It is prodigiously imagined, none more so than this last in the series, which has ideas in abundance. Enigmatic alien civilisations, four dimensional universes poking into ours, star-busting weapons, a light speed drive, manifestations of quantum entanglement, gravitational wave communicators, a weapon which reduces dimensions, the possibility the speed of light was once infinite, an unremittingly hostile universe, the laws of physics as the ultimate in weaponry, a timeline extending nearly nineteen million years. There is surely enough here to satisfy anyone’s quest for a sense of wonder.

Given such an almost Stapledonian timeline any narrative has to tend towards the episodic, even if due to the development of suspended animation technology (here called hibernation) we are able to follow the fortunes of Cheng Xin, a spaceflight technologist, and, with her, those of wider humanity down the ages. The advent of reliable hibernation allows the author to tease us with the thought that, “As modern biology advanced apace, people began to believe that death’s end would be achievable in one or two centuries …. those who chose hibernation were taking the first steps on the staircase to life everlasting,” but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Periodic extracts from a journal called A Past Outside of Time act as a sort of historical filler between episodes. While there is some early overlap between events in Death’s End and those of the previous two books we are soon venturing well beyond them.

Death’s End start though is comparatively prosaic; at the siege of Constantinople, with a magician being engaged to kill Sultan Mehmed II and so save the city. She doesn’t, of course, but we are told her magic is due to the first manifestation of a four dimensional universe into ours. That telling is emblematic of the book’s overall style. The section is, however, notable for its concentration on the interactions between its characters.

Move on centuries to a college classmate of Cheng Xin, Yun Tianming, who, mainly due to an unrequited affection for her, at the time we meet him is contemplating the newly legalised euthanasia. His acceptance of death makes him an ideal candidate to represent humanity as a sole envoy to the incoming fleet of the Trisolarans, as he won’t be coming back. The book has a structural problem here as Yun remains offstage for a large portion of it before returning as a crucial contributor to the later story it tells. The fleet finally turns back after Earth’s broadcasts of a third planet’s location to the universe implicitly threatening the Trisolaran home star since in an inimical (Dark Forest) universe this invites pre-emptive destruction by aliens with superior technology. A system of deterrence is established between Earth and Trisolaris which holds until Cheng becomes the Swordholder responsible for initiating the required signal. Seconds after she does so, Trisolaris strikes. Cheng does not act; but an Earth ship in deep space, effectively nothing but a gravitational wave antenna, does transmit the coordinates. Trisolaris’s sun is swiftly destroyed. Here we lose what was one of the attractions of the two earlier books, the descriptions of Trisolaran society.

The rest of Death’s End is taken up with humanity’s efforts to avoid or evade Dark Forest annihilation, basically keeping schtum but also building habitats to hide in the shadows of the giant planets. There is some by-play involving a meeting between Tun and Cheng promoted by Trisolarans from a spaceship that picked him up. He has invented folk tales to embed clues to their superior knowledge of Physics. These tales, clever metaphors on Liu’s part, are perhaps the most readable part of the book. Elsewhere the characters are little more than pegs to hang the story from and most of their conversations relate purely to the ongoing scenario or its exploration.

Death’s End is certainly the culmination of a tour-de-force of speculation (and hats off too to its translator Ken Liu) but its 700+ pages are in effect one long info dump. Intellectually bracing, but emotionally cold.

The following did not appear in the published review.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Translator’s note; “thus preserving a flicker of hope for humanity during their darkest hour” (its darkest hour.) Otherwise; colons are invariably followed by a capital letter (which they should not be. It is not after all, a new sentence,) none is most often given a plural verb when it ought to be singular, antennas (antennae,) advisor (adviser.) “Neither droplet struck their respective targets” (Neither droplet struck its respective target,) “the two crafts” (craft, this incorrect plural later appeared several times,) candelabras, (candelabra, one of them is a candelabrum,) “in close proximity of” (proximity to,) “mark in the psyche of the world” (on the psyche,) “the dark side of the moon” (it has no dark side. A far side yes, but all of it experiences sunlight. Plus it should be the Moon,) “there were a total” (there was a total,) football-shaped (USian; the shape was that of a rugby ball,) “the Federation fleet had sent the bulk of their ships” (the Federation fleet had sent the bulk of its ships,) “three point forty-one” (three point four one. Forty is a signifier for four tens and no units – 40 – not a placeholder for four tenths and zero hundredths as in 3.40. Later we had “point five three” correctly rendered,) gasses (gases,) “back to this chest” (his chest.)

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