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. 

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.