By Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu
So, there’s this trilogy by a renowned Chinese SF writer named Cixin Liu, who probably doesn’t have enough room in his home for all the awards he’s won.
The first volume, The Three-Body Problem, won the Hugo in 2015 for Best Novel. It was basically about a strange star-system with inhabitants, called Trisolarans because they have three suns, of intimidating technology who hear Earth shouts for attention. They provide that attention by sending two fleets to overwhelm Earth and take it for themselves. They, at light speed, send out unfolded particles called Sophons that are basically computers to spy on Earth and prevent humans from developing further technology that might make us more dangerous. It was very good, and deserved the Hugo it won.
The second volume, Dark Forest, was released the same year and wasn’t nominated for any awards. Dark forest is a strategy that emerging species wisely practice. It doesn’t announce itself to the galaxy, but continues to build technology until there is the inevitable confrontation. The idea is to stay isolated and unknown for as long as possible. It was okay, but had some pretty silly premises and downright bad science on occasion. It didn’t really deserve any awards, but did deserve reading.
This third and final volume, Death’s End, is an epic tome! 600 pages of dense action and info-dumps to bring the whole thing to a conclusion, literally at the end of the universe. Normally, I can read a book like this in a week. This one took a month. Yeah, like that.
So, now is REVIEW TIME! (Can’t you hear the trumpets blaring?) We will begin with short parental advisories; then a summary of this with as few spoilers as possible; some faults and praises, which probably will involve some spoilage; and finally, my take on its award potential.
Language/ Profanity: Perhaps 2 f-bombs, and that’s it.
Sex / Nudity: None.
Violence: Some and it can be gory in a couple of places. However, the author treats this with the shock any normal human SHOULD have, and does not glorify it, nor wallow in it.
Suggestion: If you have a bright young one who wants to tackle this, it is probably okay without you reading it first. However, many of the concepts are difficult to envision, and that might be good for them to try and discern. It certainly will be educational. And quite boring in places, so tenacity will be required.
Part One of this book takes place during the same time as Dark Forest, but from a different angle. That one was about the Wallfacer Project to deter the impending invasion. This begins during that time, but with another scheme called the Staircase Program that is acting separately. This program has the objective of meeting the invading fleets and planting a spy amongst them. It seems to fail, but is quite interesting in its practical application for accelerating space ships quickly through the Solar System.
Part Two follows the successor to Luo Ji as Wallfacer as the fleet nears. She is supposed to send a signal into the galaxy with the invader’s coordinates, insuring that their own home star will be destroyed if they attack. She fails. However, out at the edge of the Solar System, two human-crewed space ships send out the signal, and the Trisolaran’s sun is hit with a photoid, destroying their System. Unfortunately, this transmission endangers Earth also, because it generally provides triangulation for more powerful aliens to find Earth and destroy it also. The Trisolarans flee in terror, having lost their own world and unwilling to face the consequences to our world.
Part Three is unraveling three fairy tales that the spy sent humans, giving clues of how to defend themselves. No one really understands the symbolism throughout them. Humans embark on two more projects: The Bunker project, which involves building space cities behind the gas giant planets, to provide shields if the Sun is destroyed by the unknown super-aliens. And the Black Domain Plan, which involves slowing the speed of light around the Solar System, so it appears to not exist. Neither one will ultimately work. Another option was attaining FTL drive by space curvature technology, but the dangers make it unrealistic, and so this research is outlawed.
Part Four explores those space cities, touring many of them to show off the variety that is possible, the population, and even why Earth is relatively empty of people now because most folks are afraid of the dark forest strike they believe may be coming. One of those cities has clandestinely continued working on FTL drive, and has to stand down or be destroyed.
Part Five opens with the dark forest strike being sent Earthward. It enters the Solar System appearing to be a small slip of paper. However, it defies the known laws of physics, and humans try hard to figure out what is going on. Too late. We learn that the protagonist’s ship has been outfitted with a proscribed FTL space curvature engines, and is the only ship that can escape.
Part Six follows the main character as she escapes the System and heads out into the galaxy, skipping ahead through hibernation until the Universe’s entropy collapses. How will they be saved? Sorry, that’s just too much spoilage. Those fairy tales are clearly explained, which is pretty great!
Faults and Praises (with spoilers, so get lost now if you don’t want them):
Fault: The science in this is front and center, which makes the bad science jump out at you and go, “Boo!” Once again, we see people firing rifles and pistols in weightlessness without any recoil or spinning backward, but if a man uses a cane in weightlessness, it keeps sending him into the air.
Praise: The science in this is AWESOME! The author will spend quite a lot of time trying to explain four dimensions to three dimensional people, then describing two dimensions also! It is quite evocative.
Fault: The author will spend QUITE A LOT of pages explaining all that dimensional stuff. BORING! Give us one good example, not five bad ones.
Praise: The scale of this story is EPIC! There are so many cool extrapolations of ideas that this book is rapid-fire one after the other.
Fault: The scale of this story is SO EPIC that it is hard to contain. There is enough here for five novels, let alone one. It’s overwhelming.
Praise: The difficult decisions the protagonist is faced with are enormous. The fate of humanity literally weighs in the balance.
Fault: The protagonist is uneven in how she deals with these decisions. Ultimately, she fails more times than succeeds.
Praise: Doesn’t matter. A few humans will survive and she will be one of them.
Fault: When explaining all those dimensional things, we are told that what a shuttle has already done is quite improbable if not impossible. Then it does it AGAIN! What? Two tries to go from four dimensions to three and nail your target? Sorry. Not happening.
Another Fault: At the end of Part Two, we have detailed the efforts of two space ships at the edge of the Solar System to explore those dimensions. They decide to leave the System because the Earth is doomed. Some don’t want to go, so they construct and ark and send it inward to Earth. That ark disappears from the novel completely. We have to assume from then on that they arrived at Earth, simply to explain how Earth suddenly knows about four-dimensional qualities. No message is sent to explain it, so they must have arrived. It’s just not mentioned.
Another Fault: Those two ships appear in the final act in other parts of the galaxy, and somehow they know about and have built curved space FTL propulsion. They were gone from the Solar System before that was addressed. How?!? Where would they find the ability to do research, testing, and development of the exact same method of FTL that Earth developed?
In other words, if I had enough Vaseline I could probably slide a locomotive through the plot holes in this novel. I’ve only listed three of them. There are more. However, it is gratifying that the author ties up many loose ends. There were just too many to tie up.
At the end Ken Liu, the highly esteemed author and translator of this, praises Cixin Liu as a genius. I have to agree with him. The man is a genius. He could use a genius editor who will keep him in check, making wiser uses for Liu’s genius. It’s interesting that Ken Liu began the work with footnotes to help western readers understand some nuances of Chinese language. Then we hear nothing from him until the last 100 pages, when the footnotes return. There are about 350 pages of this that needed footnotes, but doesn’t get them. Though Ken Liu will never say, nor should he, I suspect the tedium of this work wore him down. He’s got his own stuff to do. He was probably paid a handsome fee, and you don’t piss in your bosses Cheerios, so kudos.
The tone remains strictly isolationist. The dark forest strike drives everyone to retreat inside themselves. This is a negative way to approach the world and the galaxy. Think about what is going on in the UK with their Brexit vote, due largely to fear. Think about what is going on in America with the presidential election, being campaigned on a platform of fear from both candidates. It’s messy, stupid, and is, overall, unproductive. With China’s history, this tone is unsurprising from a Chinese author, but should be rejected by reasonable people with hopes, dreams, and ideals.
It’s epic. No doubt about that. It should, at least, be nominated for the Hugo for this year. But those plot holes are pretty devastating. Granted, there is a great hullabaloo about diversity in SF/F right now, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the SFWA or the Nebula folks will respond to that by giving Cixin Liu another award. But, does it stand up to The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds? I don’t think so. Nominated, probably. Win, not so much.
24 October 2016