Friday, June 22, 2018

Cixin Liu’s Death’s End and Gender Issues




This book was translated by Ken Liu. 

The below contains moderate spoilers. Dramatic events happen fairly early on in this book. I reveal some of them.



Cixin Liu’s Death’s End covers a lot of ground both in terms of plot and themes. My general commentary on the book is here.


At one point in the book, Cheng Xin, the story’s main character, wakes from suspended animation several hundred years in the future. She finds that decades of easy living has softened humans. Violence has almost completely disappeared. There is little suffering or struggle. Life is incredibly comfortable for almost everyone. Something strange has happened as a result. Any ideal related to masculinity has disappeared. Femininity in all its forms has become a model to strive for among both men and women. 


Cheng Xin observes the men of the era, 


“[they] had smooth, lovely faces; long hair that draped over their shoulders; slender, soft bodies— as if their bones were made of bananas. Their movements were graceful and gentle, and their voices, carried to her by the breeze, were sweet and tender.… Back in her century, these people would have been considered ultra-feminine.”

Even the majority men of an earlier era who wake from hibernation from earlier times begin to change,

“Most men from the Common Era tried to, consciously or otherwise, feminize their appearance and personality to adjust to the new feminine society.”

There are also signs that the Trisolarans, the alien civilization that is trying to take over the Earth and who are now in constant communication with Earth, are trying to influence Earth’s culture to soften it up. 

The era is a time of strategic standoff between Earth and the Trisolarians. If the aliens attack a very difficult and tough decision will have to be made. If Earth does not retaliate quickly against a Trisolaran strike, humans will be at the mercy of the aliens. However, if Earth does retaliate, it will likely bring the destruction of both civilizations. The parallels between the nuclear standoff that existed between The United States and The Soviet Union are pointed out. 

A person is appointed called the Swordholder. This is the individual who can launch a retaliatory strike in the event of a Trisolarans attack. Luo Ji, from the previous book, has held the position for decades but his retirement is approaching. All the candidates for his replacement are people from the past who have woken from hibernation. People of the current era are deemed incapable of making the difficult decision as retaliation likely means the destruction of both Trisolaris and Earth. 

Cheng Xin, who is a candidate herself, describes the other candidates, who are men, who have woken up from hibernation and who have not taken on feminine characteristics of the time.

“She could see no sunlight in their eyes; their expressions appeared as masks that disguised their true feelings. Cheng Xin felt that she was facing a city wall built from six cold, hard rocks. The wall, roughened and toughened by the passing years, chilled her with its heaviness, and seemed to hint at death and bloodshed.”

Cheng Xin is eventually chosen as The Swordholder. Though she is a sympathetic character, this turns out to be a terrible mistake. When the Trisolarans attack, she does not launch retaliation. It later is revealed that the only reason that the attack occurred, was because Trisolarans had evaluated her personality and determined that it was unlikely that the would launch a counterattack. At one point it is observed, 

“In Cheng Xin’s subconscious, she was a protector, not a destroyer; she was a woman, not a warrior.”

As a result, though they are thwarted before the worst effects of their plan comes to fulfillment, the victorious Trisolarans begin to engage in what will be a nightmarish scenario for humans. 

It turns out that later on, Earth’s counterstrike does get launched. However, it is initiated by an Earth ship whose crew had been in suspended animation and who came from an earlier, pre – feminized era. 

The plot takes place in multiple timeframes, it is interesting that in a later timeframe when life for most humans has become a little harder, most men go back to a more masculine appearance. However, another time period is mentioned when living became comfortable and men began to also feminize.

Later, when humanity has recovered, Cheng Xin makes what be another error, when she averts a war but puts all of humanity in danger. 

Another character, Thomas Wade, is portrayed as ruthless and possibly a sadist. At one point he tries to murder Cheng Xin. However, it is later revealed that based on psychological evaluations he would have been the best candidate for Swordholder. His appointment would have forestalled the Trisolaran attack altogether. Later on, his plans for development of light speed ships is shown to be the best path for humanity’s future. 

With all of the above, Liu has set up a dichotomy in this book between masculine and the feminine traits. 

Poking around Google a bit, it seems that a fairly poplar idea coming from some Chinese commentators and opinion makers that modern men are taking on too many feminine qualities and that this will lead to bad outcomes in the future. I know that this strain of thought is also present in the West also, but it seems more prevalent in China. Obviously, this thinking influenced Liu in this book. 

Liu seems to be saying that an extremely comfortable society, completely free of violence  and suffering will lead to the extinction of masculinity. He tries to show that ultra-femininity will be a draw to people when living conditions become very easy. Even men from more masculine eras are drawn to the feminine ideal. The book portrays this as a natural, but in many ways, undesirable, progression. In the end, a feminized world would be unable to defend itself against external threats. 

More Google searching reveals that some are reading this book and are concluding that Liu is a sexist. I am not sure that this is the case. I think that gender issues are so complicated and that when authors stick their necks out with opinions on it they will inevitably ruffle from feathers. I think that when science fiction authors try to tackle it the results are usually interesting, even when I disagree with what they seem to be saying. 

I think that it makes sense to put masculine and feminine traits in their own buckets. These traits can range from dress and other aspects of physical appearance, mannerisms as well as less superficial traits like aggression and perhaps recklessness. I also think that most men and women display a combination of masculine and famine traits. Most men exhibit more masculine traits, most women exhibit more feminine traits. There are exceptions. Furthermore, while I think that culture can have a big impact on how certain traits are expressed, there is a major genetic component behind many of these traits. Though certain cultural trends might encourage more men to exhibit more feminine traits, I think that biology is too strong for the society that Liu envisions to form. 

Liu depicts the society of The Swordholder as unable to counter the Trisolaran threat because it has become too feminized. My take is that I think that humanity is in a kind of a balance, with most people exhibiting a combination of masculine and feminine traits. I think that if either masculine or feminine attributes were to universally disappear the outcome would be bad in all sorts of ways. Thus, while I think that there is no chance that masculinity will disappear like Liu envisions, the results would be very undesirable it they did. The same can be said however, if feminine traits were to disappear. 

I love it when science fiction authors dig into these issues. The genre of science fiction gives writers a vehicle to go into all sorts of directions on these issues. This is only a small part of what this book is about. Death’s End is filled with all sorts of interesting speculations on this and other issues. Folks who like science fiction and such speculations would do well to read this series. 

33 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

i've still got it on the list, and i'll read it; soon, i hope... i was going to comment about the sexual characteristic question, but you got there first: in my experience, some of the toughest people to deal with have been female; and the opposite is true of men: many of them seem to just want to get along with no boat rocking... so i have some doubts re Liu's premises... it still seems like an interesting book, tho...

Violet said...

Well, I think that gender is entirely a social construct, so it's feasible that a society could become "feminised" or "masculinised" over time, according to how children were socialised into performing gender. And I can see why some people would think the author is sexist, because he does seem to be buying into gender stereotypes that don't actually exist in real people. As you say, most of us enact a combination of masculine and feminine gender characteristics.

I don't agree that there is a major genetic component behind masculinity and femininity, which are socially constructed and policed gender roles. I don't think that biology has anything at all to do with gender: they are two different things altogether. As I see it, human biology = sexual dimorphism (male and female), and gender = enculturation (learned behaviour). I think we're all sexed humans at birth, and are "made" into girls and boys, and women and men, by our upbringing and social environment.

I wouldn't have any trouble ordering that strike! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet- This is the great debate between nature and nurture and gender! It is such a big topic! I will just say that over almost every society thaf has ever existed on Earth, there have been average differences between the way that large groups of men and women and behavior. Some are of these differences are consistent between societies. I think the best example is the tendency to be violent. This is only about averages over large populations. It says nothing about individuals.I think that many women would launch the counter strike and many men would not. I think that I would. With that, I think that one could debate if it is ethical or rational to do so.

Weather Liu is accurately divideding masculine and feminine traits is debatable.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- The issue of being tough to deal with, of just wanting to get along...is that tied to masculinity or femininity? I tend to think not. With that, this is a complicated issue.

Brian Joseph said...

I would also add, that even if being difficult to get along with were a masculine trait, we are all s combination of masculine and feminine traits so both men and women could display such tendencies.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
Very interesting commentary, and comments about this book by Cixin Liu.
I believe in nature AND nurture re gender traits or characteristics.
This book and series sound fascinating, in many ways.

Whispering Gums said...

Great discussion Brian .. I hadn’t heard of that concern. Intriguing. I'm a feminist from way back, but I do think biology plays a role in male and female behaviour. Most of our differences today are culturally constructed I believe, making it hard to tease out the "real" differences, and as each person has his/her own biological make-up it's further complicated. But we do have some basic differences that we can't deny... After all, dome you can see and they are surely not skin deep! Gender equity, to me, is not about saying we are the SAME, it's about saying we should have equal rights. Very different things.

Anyhow, I haven't read the book, but it's sad when commentators shut down discussion and exploration of ideas by name-calling.

HKatz said...

"Poking around Google a bit, it seems that a fairly poplar idea coming from some Chinese commentators and opinion makers that modern men are taking on too many feminine qualities and that this will lead to bad outcomes in the future."

One of the bad outcomes China is currently facing is their sex/gender imbalance. It stems from both the one-child policy and from the greater value placed on boys. I don't see how contempt for qualities typically associated with women will help this crisis or forestall others. In any case, a healthy society would allow for a flourishing of a number of traits, both the ones coded masculine and those coded feminine.

Also, I'm not sure if an 'extremely comfortable' society would render everyone feminine. I also think people lack the capacity to become too comfortable without stagnating (which is a danger for both men and women, regardless of how masculine or feminine they are). They would either push to find new challenges for themselves, such as new things to explore, or they would start turning on each other.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I agree, A combination of nature and nurture is indeed what makes people people.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Whispering Gums. Your thoughts parallel mine. It is imperative that people are treated equally, but there is no point in denying differences over large groups of men and women. Culture does play a big part too. As I have written before, think that one of the biggest differences between large groups of men and women is the tendency towards violence.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Though I would do well to learn more about modern China, the gender imbalance must be having some profound effects. The demonization of feminine traits in men is as old as it is irrational.

I also agree that a safer and more comportsble society would not feminize like described in this book. Though I do not think finding new challenges is a particularly masculine or feminine trait, I think that people would do that too.

The Bookworm said...

Fascinating post as usual and like you mention, gender issues are so complicated that when authors touch on the topic there are bound to hit some nerves.
I think a balance is always necessary, like yin and yang.
Enjoy your Sunday!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Naida - Balance is key. I think a world where either masculine or feminine traits disappeared would be a bad one.

baili said...

i am glad to not miss this one Brain!

a very interesting book and wonderful review as always!!!

it is joy to read that author raised some hopes that world got better in many ways in future but men's attitude is scary as their basic strong quality which differentiate them from women and define them is their offensive behavior which used to bring huge change in human history
i would like to search and read about such strange chines ideas about men of future
really enjoyed this one !

will be reading your post which i missed when i will be back in my routine
please take care and stay blessed always!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili- No worries about missing some of my posts. I know that you have been traveling and life gets busy.

I think only a small percentage of men are violent or oppressive to others. Unfortunately that small percentage brings a lot of misery to the word.

Tracy Terry said...

Wow! What can I say?

This sounds like a totally fascinating read and as for your commentary? Insightful and thought provoking as always.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. Good review! You raise some thought-provoking questions.

It's interesting to read all the comments on this post. I used to be a militant "gender roles are imposed on humans" when I was in college, but I have completely changed.

First of all, basic biology dictates that the levels of estrogen and testosterone, to name just one basic difference, determine a lot of our behavior. That is why woman who "identify as men" or vice versa artificially change their estrogen and testosterone levels through drugs.

Which raises another question. If gender is a social construct, how does one "identify" as a particular gender unless one first has a definition of what it means to be that gender? It seems to me to be circular reasoning.

If there is no difference between sexes, how can there be a definition or stereotype which provides a blueprint of a particular gender for someone to "identify" with.

Men are typically more physically aggressive and cat scans show they simply think differently. Women want to nurture more. Of course there are great exceptions.

Men and women are designed to complement each other. I am becoming more aware of that as I see how my husband helps me where I am weak and I help him where he is weak.

I say, "Viva la difference!"

Caroline said...

I can see why some would find this sexist as it equals feminine with soft and possibly weak.
But I also agree with you - this is the kind of topic that’s perfect for sci-fi novels to explore.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. This entire series is so intriguing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I agree with most of your points. The fact that transgender folks are said to have been born in the wrong body supports this. They psychologically trend towards the gender opposite to their physical sex. I would just add that I think that these points relate generally to large groups. Individuals should not be stereotyped.

Brian Joseph said...


Brian JosephJune 25, 2018 at 6:02 PM
Hi Caroline- You raise a good point. Simply it is wrong to stereotype women as being weak. But I think that Ciu is identitfying traits here that all people have in combination. In his world, the vast majority of men take on these “weak” traits based on environment.

Brian Joseph said...

I would also add that Ciu seems to view rationally as more of a feminine trait. So I think that what he is saying is complicated.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, very thought provoking post. I would venture a guess that the feelings about women in China are complicated. A hundred years ago I believe foot binding was still going on, then came the Communist Revolution and now a modern capitalist China where women have much more freedom and I think in his novels Ciu reflects this tension.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - There is indeed a lot going on in China and it relates to history. Of course, they have no monopoly on questionable ideas being bandied about on social media and elsewhere.

James said...

Thanks for a very thought-provoking commentary. I believe that I agree with you regarding the continuance of masculinity, but as you point out it is interesting to consider the possibilities through the eyes of science fiction writers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I tend to be fascinated by such speculations.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

I also didn't think this was sexist. Even though he attaches this to femininity (and there is also some sense to that), he also portrays weak and strong men, so it's not like it just goes one way - it's also attached to the personality. And it's interesting to explore the way society might be turning to one side more than another - although you could argue the same way that the previous centuries have been too masculine - too many wars, too little empathy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina- -Yes, Ciu seems to be talking about sets of traits that women or men might have, You raise a good point about previous centuries being too masculine. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker talks about this.

Maria Behar said...

TERRIFIC commentary as usual, Brian! :) :)

It seems to me that this last book in the trilogy has opened up a whole can of worms regarding the current gender debates!

My take on this whole thing is that there should be no generalizations regarding behaviors typically associated with one gender or the other. As you have so accurately pointed out, men and women display a mix of character traits deemed typically masculine and feminine. And yes, in the also current gender debates, the "nature vs. nurture" debate is also still going strong. However, in recent years, as you have also pointed out, scientific research has provided proof that there are indeed biological differences between the sexes. Even with that, though, not everyone fits snugly within the pigeonhole still assigned to each gender by society.

Totally masculine men, as well as totally feminine women, are actually rather rare, it seems to me. Besides, to me, "macho men" are completely repulsive. I think that a man who is secure in his masculinity will also exhibit some traditionally feminine traits, such as tenderness and compassion. In my opinion, there's nothing sweeter than seeing a man melt like butter when holding his baby girl or boy in his arms! And yet, that same man can get all dirty and sticky while working on his car, and exert force where necessary.

In the case of women, I find "girly girls" a bit ridiculous. A woman can certainly be assertive, intellectual, and yet, still feminine. Also, I see nothing at all wrong with women taking up martial arts. If girls were required to take such classes beginning in childhood, I'm SURE the incidence of rape would decline VERY sharply.

Not all women are interested in traditionally feminine pursuits such as sewing and knitting. As for cooking, it's very interesting to note that there are not many female chefs in gourmet food restaurants, and yet, women are expected to cook at home, although some men also cook at home.

(Well, it's happened again....my comment is too long, so the system won't accept it. Lol. More coming!)

Maria Behar said...

(Continued from above.)

I think that Liu's depiction of a TOTALLY feminine society is not only a gross generalization, but also a silly caricature. Our world has been dominated by men for centuries. Yet, we still have a variety of behaviors and styles of dress evident in our society. If our current society were "masculinized", then we would see a LOT of women out there dressing just like men, with crew cuts and other masculine hair styles.

Behind Liu's depiction of this ridiculous future society, I see a sexist, patronizing, and even misogynistic attitude toward women. He is insidiously stating that the wholesale adoption of feminine values and traits would actually undermine a society, that society would actually be WEAKER if it adopted more feminine values. On the contrary, such a society would more probably be much more HUMANE. But his depiction of an ENTIRE society of feminized men is totally unrealistic, not to mention absurd.

So yes, I do think that Liu is ever so subtly (and actually, NOT so subtly) putting down the female gender. Besides, he's totally ignoring the fact that there have been many notable women throughout history -- including female queens that ruled with firm power -- that have not made it into the history books because of their gender. Three of them, however, have: Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria of England, as well as Catherine the Great of Russia. Furthermore, while these women were queens, their respective countries flourished.

Not that long ago, as you know, I published two posts on my blog related to an incident I had with a "heavily-blinkered"
guy who thought that the science fiction genre is not an "appropriate" one for women to read. This man's atavistic attitude is also a very ignorant one, in view of the several BRILLIANT female SF writers in the past century, as well as in recent years. Again, generalizations are absurd. Yes, most men and women might fit into the male/female stereotypes, but there are always exceptions. And, as I stated above, a mixture of male and female traits in a person is actually more attractive. It also makes a person well-balanced, too. Again, as you have stated, most people exhibit a mixture of male and female traits and behaviors, although the ones associated with their biological gender will usually prevail.

It would be interesting to compare this novel with Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness", I think.

Well, I could go on and on about this, lol. Bottom line, this aspect of the book that you've analyzed here now makes the entire trilogy much less appealing to me. I'm really glad you mentioned it, as I am now reconsidering getting into these books!

Thanks for yet another very well-written, thought-provoking review!! HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY TO YOU & YOUR FAMILY!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. I like to describe biological differences between the sexes as differences that can be measured when the behavior of large groups is averaged. This accounts for the differences in individuals and it avoids stereotyping.

Liu really goes in so many directions in the second two books in the series. This is just one of them. I should have emphasized it more in my post, but the feminized society depicted was more humane and peaceful. It just could not defend itself adequately.

I think in the view espoused in this book, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria of England, and Catherine the Great of Russia all showed masculine traits. Liu seems to be saying that these women would not have been like this in his future feminized society. I agree that his depiction is unrealistic. However one describes these strong traits that many women and men display, I think that some of them are hardwired into us from our genes. No culture will change that. By the way, this is one of the main points of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

I agree, Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" is a good comparison to this book. Also is her The Dispossessed. In that book there is a society where many feminine traits have disappeared.

Have a happy Forth of July!

thecuecard said...

Interesting analysis. I think the world might be a better place if its leaders gained more feminized traits. I think it has a long ways to go. We can't even elect a woman president in 240 years of history. I'm curious what Liu was thinking here.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - It is interesting that In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker identifies a more feminized world as one of the five big drivers of human progress. This feminized world that Liu envisioned is indeed better in a lot of ways. It is less violent, there is less suffering, etc. However, it was unprepared to deal with external threats. Hillary Clinton, who I like, would be very different in this world. She would not be initiating military action, even in self defense.