Death’s end, by Liu Cixin (2010).
Score: a masterpiece.
The last installment of Remembrance of Earth’s past trilogy after The three-body problem and The dark forest, Death’s end wraps up the story with a pirouette and a confident smile. It’s huge, it’s intelligent, tragic and amazingly vast. Each novel is better than the previous one and this one has managed to become my favourite science-fiction novel of all time, as of today.
***SPOILERS FOR THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM AND THE DARK FOREST***
Death’s end goes back to the beginning of the Crisis Era. While the Wallfacer Project is being developed and made public, young rocket scientist Cheng Xin joins the Staircase Program, which seeks to gather intelligence about Trisolaris by sending a probe to meet the vanguard of the Trisolaran Fleet. Later, after the Doomsday Battle, Luo Ji is established as the Swordholder, a person who holds the control of the gravitational wave antennae and is tasked with exposing the location of Trisolaris if dark forest deterrance is compromised.
Like The dark forest, Death’s end is heavy with grand strategy themes and slowly evolves from a first contact story to a space opera and finally to a cosmic horror work. An in-universe document called A past outside of time is used to summarize and explain big social and intellectual upheavals that would be too awkward for a character to narrate to another in dialogue. Once again, the masses, society, large quantities of people with their culture and outlook on life play a central role. It’s a long book and many things happen in it. While the pacing is generally slow but suitable, I personally didn’t enjoy the stalling in the last third after the climactic moment that ends the second third.
Liu shows the greatest extent of his scientific knowledge and imagination and it’s quite impressive. He enjoys his descriptions of the technologies he has dreamed up and makes sure to flesh them out even if the stakes are high in the plot. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read a science-fiction book where literary analysis plays a major role in the plot and I love it.
***SPOILERS FOR DEATH’S END***
I love how Liu is uncompromising with denying the reader their happy ending. It’s a story about fatal character flaws, not of a single person but of a whole civilization and even a whole universe. In The dark forest, he made us forget that Trisolaris was much superior technologically and infected us with humanity’s arrogance and unreasonable optimism. The fleet was crushed in Doomsday Battle and the day was only saved by Luo Ji’s gambit. (Luo Ji was told the rules of galactic sociology by Ye Wenjie, and it’s never addressed why. Did Trisolaris tell her somehow? Did she figure it out on her own? And anyway, did she regret exposing Earth to Trisolaris and wanted to make up for it? This keeps bugging me.)
In this book, dark forest deterrence is being maintained by the bitter Luo Ji. Meanwhile, a more and more feminine society becomes more confident that the deterrence is easy to maintain and wishes to have a hearty relationship with Trisolaris because everything is forgotten, right? Well, it’s not. Humanity manages to escape genocide in extremisthanks to the actions of Gravity and Blue Space, which they had despised and branded as traitors.
Just in time, Yun Tianming’s message encoded in the three fairy tales arrives. After much thinking about it they figure out there are three possible strategies: lightspeed, bunker and black domain. Trisolaris gets roasted, but who cares because they had it coming. Once again, the recipe for tragedy: enough arrogance to think the Bunker Project is going to work, infantile fear of leaving the Solar System and refusal to accept the Universe is populated by a bunch of pragmatic bastards.
Liu does it again and again: he lulls you into humanity’s delusion of grandeur and naïve outlook. You’ve seen them fail miserably, but you still root for the underdogs. I want to think everyone vacated the parallel universes so the Universe wouldn’t go into heat death but if Liu has taught me anything, it will, after the curtain call.