Book Review: Death's End
I've finished reading the English translation of the conclusion to Cixin Liu's scifi epic - and, as with its predecessors, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it.
Death's End begins with a flashback to the era just after the infamous "You're bugs" message from Trisolaris, where we meet Cheng Xin, a young scientist working on a project to send a human to the Trisolaran fleet to gather information. They end up sending the frozen brain of a man with terminal cancer (who loved Cheng Xin and bought her a star). Cheng Xin then enters hiberation, waking up during the Deterrence era. Luo Ji is now the Swordholder, the one man capable of sending the message that will wipe out both Trisolaris and Earth. But he's an old man, under attack by the press, and Cheng Xin is chosen as his replacement.
Trisolaris takes advantage of Cheng Xin's kindness to destroy the transmitting stations on earth and begin resettling all humans in Australia. One of Earth's spaceships far out in the Kuiper belt manages to get the transmission off after escaping a Trisolaran attack, and Trisolaris is destroyed. The Trisolarans change course to bypass Earth, assuming that it too will be destroyed.
Cheng Xin is offered the chance to talk to the man whose brain she sent into space long ago before the Trisolaran fleet gets too far away. He passes along three made-up fairytales, encoded with vital information that could help Earth avoid destruction. As Cheng Xin goes back into hiberation, humanity rejects the idea of a "black domain" and lightspeed ships in favor of building "bunker cities" behind the gas giants which could survive the destruction of Earth's sun.
I don't want to entirely spoil the ending, but this book literally follows Cheng Xin to the end of the universe. Literally. Cixin Liu got very very ambitious here.
One of my biggest issues with Cixin Liu is his inability to write interesting characters, and that hasn't changed in three books. Cheng Xin is essentially a blank slate, with no character development (she makes dozens of mistakes but never learns from them) and few distinguishing characteristics other than "kind" and "maternal". She exists merely as a vehicle so that Liu can show the reader his vision of the future.
And the implicit sexism of the previous books is still here. Despite two of the core characters being female, there's a strong suggestion that Cheng Xin's failings are due to her gender, that she could never have been a good Swordholder because she's a woman and the mistakes she makes are because she's female and women are too kind to make the necessary decisions. In that regard, I strongly disliked many sections of the book.
But if you ignore his actual characters and simply read this book with humanity as its lead, Liu will take you down a beautiful rabbit hole of exploratory scifi. He's firing on all cylinders with different theories of extra dimensions and interstellar travel. The sections where the crews of Gravity and Blue Space explore a section of four-dimensional space are incredible, as are the depictions of the bunker cities. The black domain theory is fascinating. If there's any flaw with the "science" of this science fiction, it might be that he gets overly technical in places. It doesn't bother me much, since I read layman's astrophysics books for fun, but I can see where it would be problematic for others.
There are a few areas where I had a hard time suspending disbelief, the biggest one being that all of humanity would be so naive as to assume that destroying the Sun would be the only way for aliens to wreck our solar system. Even without the hints of the eventual threat (the messages from Gravity and Blue Space about collapsing four dimensional space should be a dead giveaway), it is a colossal mistake to make such an assumption based on exactly two data points. I cannot imagine that nobody thought that aliens would realize we could build bunker cities and plan accordingly. If there's a single infuriating plothole in the story, it's this.
In the end, I think Liu simply tries to do too much. The scope of this novel is so wildly grandiose that Liu never really manages to pull it off and the eventual end left me unsatisfied without a strong character to anchor it to. Yet I can hardly fault him for trying. And if there's a bright side here, it's that I loved the prose translation so much I ended up buying Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings - so you can look for a review of that in the coming months.