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Book Review: Death's End, by Cixin Liu

The conclusion of the trilogy ends on a galactic scale.


Death's End

Tor, 2016, 604 pages



With The Three-Body Problem, English-speaking listeners got their first chance to experience the multiple-award-winning and best-selling Three-Body Trilogy by China's most beloved science fiction author, Cixin Liu.

Three-Body was released to great acclaim, including coverage in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. It was also named a finalist for the Nebula Award, making it the first translated novel to be nominated for a major SF award since Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities in 1976. Now this epic trilogy concludes with Death's End.

Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. With human science advancing daily and the Trisolarans adopting Earth culture, it seems that the two civilizations will soon be able to coexist peacefully as equals, without the terrible threat of mutually assured annihilation. But the peace has also made humanity complacent.

Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early 21st century, awakens from hibernation in this new age. She brings with her knowledge of a long-forgotten program dating from the beginning of the Trisolar Crisis, and her very presence may upset the delicate balance between two worlds. Will humanity reach for the stars or die in its cradle?




The conclusion of Cixin Liu's trilogy, that began with the Hugo-winning The Three-Body Problem, is as epic as any space opera ever written, and while it was not a perfect book, it deserves to rank highly in the SF canon.

Warning: Spoilers for the first two books.

In book one, The Three-Body Problem, Earth first became aware of the Tri-Solarans, an alien civilization that was already en route to conquer Earth. Coming from light years away in sub-light ships, this gave Earth centuries to prepare, but Tri-Solarian technology was such that, even given centuries to catch up, Earth was still facing almost impossible odds.

The second book, The Dark Forest, expanded the epic scale of the conflict and introduced grand ideas in the best tradition of classic science fiction. Yet it had problems with characterization and the writing, possibly because American sci-fi author Ken Liu, who translated the first and last book, did not translate the middle volume. In The Dark Forest, we learned that the universe is a vast and hostile place, where every civilization that reaches a level of technology sufficient to detect other civilizations assumes, from a game-theoretic point of view, that all other civilizations are existential threats and must be eliminated upon detection. Thus, for a civilization to reveal itself is to commit suicide, for some other civilization out in the cosmos will immediately send a doomsday weapon that will put out your star and extinguish all life in your solar system. Every civilization that survives understands this, and so the universe is a vast "dark forest" where anyone stupid enough to shine a light is making themselves a target for all the unseen hunters.

So guess which civilization was stupid enough to shine a light?

Book two ended with the Tri-Solarans still on their way to conquer Earth. In book three, they arrive.

Death's End spans centuries, and contains revelation after revelation after doomsday, apocalyptic revelation. The Tri-Solarans, having been held off by a sort of interstellar Mutually Assured Destruction pact created by humanity, exist in an uneasy truce with Earth, sharing culture and technology while always being aware that mankind has its finger on a deadman switch, ready to push it at the first sign of betrayal.

It's fairly obvious to the reader that the now "peaceful" Tri-Solarans are just biding their time, and inevitably, there is a showdown, in a high tension situation where one woman is literally responsible for the fate of the human race.

This is only at about the halfway point of the novel, though!

Eventually, humans and Tri-Solarans have to face the threat of even greater powers out in the galaxy. Centuries pass while doom still hangs over everyone's heads - you may know your civilization is doomed, but you don't know exactly when the day of doom will arrive. Clever and ingenious and mad humans seek escape routes, solutions to puzzles involving technology capable of literally reshaping reality, and every time it seems there might be hope, mankind just gets screwed again. And yet continues to survive.

Cixin Liu is a fan of Asimov, Clark, and probably E.E. "Doc" Smith as well. This trilogy, originally written in Chinese, sometimes emerges with slightly stilted prose and ideas that aren't immediately accessible to a Western audience, but you can see the Western influence and science permeating Liu's writing. It's a grand epic space opera involving battling starfleets, planet-killing weapons, travels between dimensions, and a hot sexy alien ninja robot. There is action, adventure, romance, and Big Ideas. Sometimes the characters behave in a manner that seems slightly absurd, but given the situations they are in, maybe it's understandable.

If you like the works of the authors I mentioned above, or Alastair Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, David Brin, or anyone else who writes about super-powered galactic civilizations waging wars that span millennia, then this is definitely a series you need to read.



Also by Cixin Liu: My reviews of The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, cixin liu, reviews, science fiction
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