Sunday, June 10, 2018

Death's End by Cixin Liu

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. 


Death’s End is the last book of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past Trilogy. Like the first two novels of the series, this is realistic science fiction that covers humankind’s struggle against alien civilizations that wish to either colonize or destroy Earth. The book goes on to touch on humanity’s fate millions of years into the future. At over 600 pages, this work is the longest of the three books, and it novel covers a lot of ground. 

The protagonist of this book is Cheng Xin, a woman who is an aerospace engineer born in what is roughly the present day. We meet Cheng Xi during her university years. A young man, Yun Tianming, falls in love with her. Unfortunately, in the years after graduation, Yun Tianming contracts a terminal form of cancer. Before he succumbs, he volunteers to have his brain sent via a probe to intercept the Trisolaran fleet that is planning to invade Earth. The fleet will take several hundred years to reach our solar system, and human technology is only capable of accelerating something as small and light as a brain on an intercept course. At the same time, Cheng Xin becomes a key figure who helps to shape the future of humanity. Yun Tianming returns later to play major part in the story.

An important plot device in this novel is the fact that Cheng Xin and other characters go into hibernation, or suspended animation, several times over the course of the story. Later, space travel at relativistic speeds mean that a short time can pass for characters on board spaceships while thousands or millions of years pass for the rest of the universe. As a result, the narrative takes place in multiple eras that comprise humanity’s future. Thus, the plot follows Cheng Xin and others during multiple periods in the future. 

So much happens in this book during the various eras. At one point, the Trisolarans destroy Earth’s deterrence system. They gain the upper hand because Cheng Xin is unwilling to launch a counterstrike that will likely destroy both civilizations. Next, The Trisolarans, having only robot probes in the solar system, but also human collaborators, begin a genocidal campaign to cull Earth’s population down to 35 million people through starvation.  Before the worst of the horrors commence, an Earth ship manages to launch a retaliation which is known as “The Dark Forest Signal.” This signal means that the location of Trisolaras, and eventually Earth, is transmitted out to the Galaxy, where malevolent civilizations will likely destroy both civilizations. The Trisolarans evacuate as they try to move their ships as far away from both systems. Humanity is spared, at least until it is destroyed as a result of the transmission. All this is fairly early in the book. Much of the remainder of the story concerns itself with humanity’s attempt to stop or survive the coming strike. 

In a later time period, Cheng Xin wakes up to find that most of humanity has resettled in giant space habitats beyond the orbit of the asteroid belt. This is in anticipation of the destruction of the sun from maleficent alien civilizations, who now probably know Earth’s location. In an even later era, Cheng Xin travels in a starship to other star systems where all sorts of fascinating things are described. At one point, she even encounters Luo Ji, who was the protagonist of the first book. There is also a lot of pathos and sadness experienced by Cheng Xin. Though most of the other characters are not well crafted in this book, I thought that Cheng Xin was captivating, as she showed some nuance, interesting traits, and real emotion. 

There is so much going on in this novel. One of many significant themes is humanity’s and the individual’s insignificance in the face of time. The novel actually opens during the fall of the Byzantine empire. The end of this great civilization underscores the temporary nature of all human endeavors. At several points in the narrative, the fact that high tech, digital electronic recordings have a limited lifespan is emphasized. Later, a mishap with a spaceship traveling at close to the speed of light means that millions of years pass while Cheng Xin experiences only a two-week interval. This means that she will essentially lose people close to her who she loves. So much time has passed that she realizes that an entire civilization might have arisen, died and wiped out on the planet that she is orbiting. She would be able to detect no trace of such a civilization due to the immense passage of time. The enormity of it all hits Cheng Xin,

“She finally understood how she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river. She surrendered completely and allowed the wind to pass through her, allowed the sunlight to pierce her soul.”

Later on, Cheng Xin and other characters find some solace and meaning in other ways, but the passage of time is still oppressive. This is just one of the fascinating themes floating around this novel. I am going to devout a separate blog devoted to Liu’s exploration of gender which he also manages to fit in here. The work is filled with many other themes as well as imaginative and speculative science which I found fascinating. 

This book is not self-contained. I would only recommend reading this after reading the first two books of the trilogy. My commentary on the Three Body Problem is here . My commentary on The Dark Forest is here.

While I was reading this book, I thought that this could have been the best book in the series. It was trending that way. It is filled with believable descriptions of wonders, the plot is epic and compelling, and, as per above, I thought that the characterization was stronger than in the previous books.  However, it was marred by an inconclusive ending. After three books, and millions of years, I thought that this work needed a firmer, more solid conclusion. Ironically, the second book, The Dark Forest, had what seemed like a firm and definitive wrap up. 


This book is marvelously inventive science fiction. Liu goes into all different directions here and covers an enormous chunk of time. The story is fascinating. In the end, I thought that the book, especially the ending, was not as focused as The Dark Forest, which I thought was the best of series. With that, this is still very much worth the read for fans of the earlier books. 

39 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

intriguing: i often am attracted to large scale works like this, but not always successfully... i just finished with Stephen Baxter's "Manifold" series; Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space were about galactic sized AI "civilizations" that transit large distances over immense periods of time. I started the third volume, Manifold: Origin, but quit about half way through because it was thoroughly unpleasant and gross beyond description... i probably won't read anything by him again: i think it's not fair for writers to get readers interested in a series and then spring something like that on them. Anyway, this series sounds a lot more interesting; many tx for the inspiring reviews... sorry about unloading about the above; just happened to be thinking about it...

Suko said...

This does sound like a fascinating series. Thank you for your interesting, clear, and detailed posts. Chen Xin sounds like a compelling protagonist. I don't read a lot of science fiction, but I enjoy it from time to time. Excellent commentary, Brian Joseph!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle - The premise of Manifold actually sounds interesting. Too bad it ended up so badly. If you read these books I would love to know what you thought of them.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko. I thought that Chen Xin was a pretty well constructed character.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, you have described this series so well. One thing that jumped out at me is how frightening the Trisolarans are. They seem hell bent on destroying earth. It's a dark vision the author has but I sense this series gives readers alot to think about.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - The Trisolarans are comming to Earth because there World is unstable and they need a new planet to live. Half of this book takes place after the retaliatory signal is initiated so it concerns itself with the potential destruction of both Earth and Trisolaras.

Stephen said...

I haven't heard of this before. At first glance it seems grimmer than most SF I've ever read! Even in a series like Foundation where Earth was a radioactive wasteland, humanity had already spread so far and wide that its birth planet was forgotten...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - You raise an interesting point. This one is a close call, but I would put it within the realm of optimistic science fiction. However, it is darker then something like Foundation.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I have not read much modern sci fi because it seems to lack the essential elements of the genre, namely, innovative scientific concepts. But this book sounds extremely interesting. I like the idea that the protagonists brain is sent somewhere out of his body so he still exists. Rather like the soul fleeing upward after someone dies.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As I have mentioned, in some ways these books are more typical of older science fiction. The soul connection with the brain being sent on an interstellar journey is neat!

thecuecard said...

I wonder why the author chose to end it inconclusively? Does that mean he might return to it -- even though it's a trilogy? I like the sound of the protagonist, she seems like a heroine with some depth and feeling. So much passage of time would weigh on anyone. It seems a bit sad

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I also wonder if there will be more books. Chen Xin was a good character. The book, especially the later chapters exuded s combination of sadness and hope.

Whispering Gums said...

Fascinating review Brian - so much there I could comment on, including the issue of time, and your planned future post on gender, to which I look forward!

I was interested in your comment about the inconclusive ending. My immediate reaction was, "but I don't mind inconclusive endings". However, your explanation which followed "After three books, and millions of years, I thought that this work needed a firmer, more solid conclusion" not only made me laugh but convinced me that your expectation was fair enough in the circumstances!

Anyhow, I don't think I'll be able to commit to this trilogy so I'm glad to have read your posts.

James said...

While this does not sound as good as Dark Forest I'll consider it. Based on your earlier review I plan to read Dark Forest this summer.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Whispering Gums - I also say that I often like inconclusive endings. But this story could have used a more solid ending. A trilogy is a lot of books. This one lends itself to reading all of them so I would only recamend this to someone very very interested.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I know that you did not care for the first book. I really thought that The Dark Forest was a lot better so I am curious as to what you will think of it.

Stefanie said...

I didn't read your entire review because I didn't want any spoilers. I am glad the book turned out so good and the series too even if the ending wasn't as solid as you had hoped it would be. I am trying to clear my reading plate so I can get to book two in the coming weeks. Looking forward to it!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie- I am curious as to what you will think about The Dark Forest. I really loved it.

Sheree Strange said...

I ignored the spoiler warning (which I know is kind of silly, but I couldn't resist! I love your reviews ;)). I'm really sorry to hear the ending left a bit to be desired - it definitely sounds like The Dark Forest is the better read. I'm in two minds about whether I'd tackle this series, because as wonderful as your reviews are, I'm thinking it might be a bit over my head... maybe chewing through a few more spec-fiction-for-dummies reads first might put me in better stead. Keep up the great work! <3

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharee - The structure of the book is a bit odd, as everything that I gave away happens before the halfway point of the book. Parts of the series are a bit technical. I find if something is too technical for me, I just skim over it, I do not worry about the details, and I just accept the outcome as fiction.

HKatz said...

I enjoy your commentary on these books. And this is a theme that comes up in sci-fi, smallness in the face of time (and the universe). So then the question is, how do we make sense of that smallness? How does it change the way we see ourselves, act, and make meaning of our lives? I love exploring these kinds of issues.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila - Indeed, science fiction is such a good medium to explore these issues. In this book, the smallness is derived from the books immensity of time.

So many books, so little time said...

Whilst your commentary on this is as always fabulous and it does sound like an interesting read I don't do well with translated books, I don't know why xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Tracy Terry said...

Hmm! Not a big fan of this genre as you know but this does appeal. Looking forward to that post on devoted to Liu’s exploration of gender - something that always fascinates me.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lainy/ It is interesting in that I have heard that the translator of this actually made the book more literary and enhanced its style.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I would say that if you do not care for old school science fiction, such as Asimov and Clarke then this book probably will not appeal to you. I really enjoy when science fiction writers explore gender. Stay tuned!

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT commentary as usual, Brian!

It does sound like this trilogy is fascinating in breadth and scope! It reminds me of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy because of this. Not that I've read Asimov's work, I must sheepishly confess....lol. But I know the general synopsis of all three novels, and that his trilogy spans centuries of future time. So I find a similarity between his work and Liu's, in that regard.

The title given to the trilogy as a whole -- "Remembrance of Earth's Past" -- also reminds me of Proust's "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu", which has been translated as "In Search of Lost Time", but also as "Remembrance of Things Past". So I think that it's the latter translation that Liu alluded to in titling his trilogy. So this makes me wonder if there is any Proustian influence in this trilogy. I think there is, especially in this third and last book. All the references to Time, how every human endeavor is ephemeral, the way Cheng Xin feels she's simply a mote of dust in the wind (I see another reference here -- to the famous Kansas -- the band -- song, "Dust In The Wind".)

So it looks like this work (the trilogy) is, on some level, a massive philosophical reflection on how the concept of Time impacts humanity. Fascinating! (As Spock would say.) There are obviously many other levels present, though. The way the population of Earth unites -- despite some traitors who collaborate with the Trisolarans -- against a common alien threat, the various equally fascinating technological descriptions, all of these point to a work that successfully explores many major themes, while still giving the reader solid characterizations, at least of the main characters.

Of course, in this third novel, I also LOVE that the female protagonist is a scientist! I'm sure Liu also promotes feminist ideals through her.

I will certainly keep these novels in mind for future reading! I'm adding all three to my Goodreads shelves! Thanks for your very insightful analysis of all three! <3 :)

Have a GREAT Saturday!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria. The links to Asimov’s Foundation are strong. In fact the series is actually mentioned in this book. I think that you would like that series. I am thinking of rereading it myself.

I never thought of the Proust connection. I think that you are absolutely right. I never read Proust myself but I really need to. I think that the dust thing is also Biblical.

The technology in this book is fascinating. There are all sorts of very creative things going on.

The exploration of gender in this book is not what I expected. As I mentioned, I will be devoting my next blog to it.

Have a great weekend!

Caroline said...

This sounded fantastic until when you mention the ending. As I said in my earlier comment I find the ideas to span such immense time very attractive. Even just reading your review, one can feel like it is crushing for an individual. Dust motes indeed. I liked that quote.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- Sometimes I think of the span of time and I too am overwhelmed. It sucks so much meaning out of things.

Harvee said...

Glad you're enjoying sci-fi, fantasy novels too. Have a great reading week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - I come back to science fiction from time to time. I do enjoy the genre.

Carol said...

Hi Brian, I left a comment here but it's gone into neverland. I'm not getting notifications of any comments via Blogger - which I know has been happening to others - anyhow just wanted to say your review was very interesting :)

Carol said...

Good! That one worked!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I am not sure if it is the cause, but since the new European privicy laws took effect, Blogger comments have been giving all kinds of trouble.. Thanks for the good word!

Marian H said...

This will be something to look forward to... I'm glad the whole trilogy turned out to be worthwhile!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian- Indeed I thought it was very worthwhile. I also thought it got better after the first book.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

In this book, what I liked the most was how the parables were used. It was incredible, and just so imaginative. And of course, the classical "never to be" Chinese love story model. And I also felt like this easily might have been the best book in the series! It's so unbelievable.

I need to reread this series. It's so complicated that it's very easy to forget, so it's a wonderful story to reread many times, I feel.

Dark Forest was actually my least favorite one, though! Because it just kind of gets stuck in the middle xD

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - The never to be thing was poignant. It was so imaginative especially since it related to the laws of physics.

There really is a lot going on in this book.

Interesting that you thought Dark Forest was the weakest. In a way, I think that it is best to look at this series as one giant story.