What was there to say? Civilization was like a mad dash that lasted five thousand years. Progress begot more progress; countless miracles gave birth to more miracles; humankind seemed to possess the power of gods; but in the end, the real power was wielded by time. Leaving behind a mark was tougher than creating a world. At the end of civilization, all they could do was the same thing they had done in the distant past, when humanity was but a babe:
Carving words into stone.
(Spoilers regarding The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest, obviously. Also some spoilers for this book. If you liked the first two, you’ll probably like this one too.)
Halfway through Death’s End, there’s a protracted scene where a character shares a protracted fairy tale with humanity, and that fairy tale is the high point of the entire trilogy. It’s a fantastic tale all on its own, creating a unique world for something simple enough to function as a children’s story, and it’s also a complex metaphorical riddle for the characters in the main plot to solve. I wasn’t expecting Liu to translate far-out scientific principles into multiple layers of symbols within a functional story-within-a-story, but the man has more range and versatility than I thought. If, in his next book, he tries to tell a radically different story, I’m on board, because in Death’s End he slams his beloved “sci-fi apocalypse” button so hard it breaks.
When I finished The Dark Forest, I was willing to give it credit for breaking the middle book syndrome that books like The Obelisk Gate fall into. The ending seemed definitive, paving the way for anything to happen in Death’s End. False alarm; what actually happens is a broad repeat of The Dark Forest‘s narrative and emotional beats blown to maximum possible size. In the end, it feels like a combination of Rick and Morty and Doctor Strangelove but without any comedy at all. On the plus side, the exhausting, protracted scenes of annihilation and death are the only faults from The Dark Forest that carry over here, while the exhilarating, whistle-stop tour of many ideas Liu had to put into the book remains. If anything, it’s even faster, like what happens when you approach the event horizon of a black hole.
There’s also another unfortunate coincidence. This book’s protagonist, Cheng Xin, is a woman, and like Ye Wenjie from Three Body, she ends up being defined primarily by her greatest failures, despite the assertions of Cheng Xin’s companions that her actions were just a drop in the bucket. Contrast this with Luo Ji, the male protagonist of The Dark Forest, who gets the opportunity to turn his apparent mistake into a miracle. I call it a coincidence and not an instance of sexism because it ends up being a by-product of the way Liu tends to treat most human beings in his story: as cogs in the machine of the human race, in plots that focus on events that make individual people insignificant. While there are attempts to make their protagonists feel like more than convenient vantage points to see the universe end from, it only felt affecting in Ye Wenjie’s case. Cheng Xin’s longing in particular is too broadly-sketched for it to be much of a curiosity.
Still, this story goes places as it humbles the human race and makes our insignificance clear in the grand scheme of things. It gets irritating seeing the Trisolarans being difficult for the umpteenth time, keeping humanity at multiple arms’ length when they aren’t just exploiting and abusing the human race, and yet in a universe this bleak, it almost makes sense why there’s no point in holding a grudge against them. Almost. Death’s End even has a hopeful ending like The Dark Forest did, though it asks the reader to greatly redefine what they’d consider hopeful by the time they finish the book. The series has been an achievement that I don’t regret reading, but I’m still not sure how it could become such a phenomenon in China. When I’m not caught up in how interesting the ideas are, especially in that fairy tale, this book just makes me feel cold and empty, like the majority of outer space.
My final Best Novel ballot:
- A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
- Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
- Death’s End by Cixin Liu
- The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
- No Award
- All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
- Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee