Death’s End | Cixin Liu | 2016 (22 September) | Head of Zeus | 604p | Review copy | Buy the book
Death’s End completes Cixin Liu’s science fiction masterpiece begun with The Three-Body Problem and continued in The Dark Forest. While all three books are very different (for instance, the game that dominates the first book is not encountered again although it does inform what is to follow), they most definitely together form a whole and so I would strongly advise you to read all three in sequence. This review assumes that you’ve read the first two books and may give away something of what has happened before.
When I first approached Cixin Liu’s trilogy I was worried that it would fly over my head – it is rich not only in hard science fiction but also in philosophy, beginning in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and then taking us into the near and then distant future when Earth falls under attack from the Trisolarans, the inhabitants of a system with three suns located four light years from Earth. But as soon as I began The Three-Body Problem I knew that my fears were ungrounded. Some enormous ideas, philosophical and scientific, are explained in the most magical of ways, in the first book using an extraordinary online game called Three Body. And it is through this game that we’re introduced to the world of the Trisolarans. What we discover made my jaw drop. Incredible.
The way that Earth plans to combat the threat from the Trisolarans is mindboggling, as is the form of that alien assault. Later, and in The Dark Forest, we learn the dangers of making First Contact, or broadcasting our existence, or physical location, out to the universe and this is the Dark Forest theory. It is that which forms the heart of Death’s End, the final novel in the trilogy.
Death’s End flies through the centuries as one young woman Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer, moves through time by hibernating for years at a stretch. She bridges the time between the first discovery of the Trisolaran threat during the Crisis era and the future when humanity searches for a way to survive annihilation, the inevitable outcome of Earth’s conflict with the Trisolarans. We are shown wonders as mankind soars beyond its natural boundaries while Cheng Xin continues to worry away at the greatest problems facing our species. She’s not always a likeable character but the pressures on her shoulders are too great for us to see her in normal terms. It’s difficult to know whether she has been blessed or cursed. I’m sure that she knows which.
This is a beautifully-written novel, made particularly so by the translation of Ken Liu. Ken Liu also translated The Three-Body Problem and I keenly felt his absence in The Dark Forest, which felt more prosaic, less magical. Death’s End is gorgeous to read. I loved the Chinese character of the novel which re-emerges in Death’s End after the comparatively Western The Dark Forest. The ideas are vast and at times very complex but the narrative takes its time to explain much of it in ways I could understand. Not all of it, but most of it. This is at heart a First Contact apocalyptic tale and for me little gets more gripping in fiction than that.
We are presented with the infinite wonder of the universe, a universe in which other life must exist and on remarkable occasion is encountered. The differences are almost unfathomable. There is undoubtedly a bleakness to this vision. The insignificance of Earth is impossible to overstate. But what stands out are a few key humans who in each of the three books are shown to have had an immense influence over life and its development. Cultures are different but they can unite in a common cause. People will not give up and just look at what they can achieve! But for what? And it is that ultimate question which this final book in an astonishing masterpiece of a trilogy seeks to answer.
This is one of those trilogies that I am the richer for reading. I can’t recommend it highly enough.