Death's End by Cixin Liu

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Death's End by Cixin Liu

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A grand sweep of a story through eons of time and lightyears of space, before we even get to the whole question of dimensions. Thought provoking and rewarding. Just don’t start with this one, if you haven’t read the first two.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 721 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1784971656

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If I'd been paying more attention when I picked this book up, I would have put it back on the shelf. Not because I didn't want to read it, but because I'd have figured out that it was the final part of a trilogy. Coming in part way through a saga is never the easiest thing to do and it's particularly true in science fiction because without knowing the back-story there are not just people whose names mean nothing to you (when it's assumed they will) but there are whole concepts that you won't understand. This latter is particularly true of Cixin Liu's work – his range is phenomenal. George R R Martin, who knows a thing or two about world-creation, described it as a unique blend of scientific and philosophical speculation, conspiracy theory and cosmology. All of that and more.

In this volume we come into the story 50 years after the Doomsday Battle, when the uneasy balance of the Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. It helps if you have read the first two books to understand what the dark forest is all about, but even without the detail it is clear that Earth has been threatened but that some kind of mutually assured destruction stand-off has been achieved. The world is peaceful and prosperous.

Into this age Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the 21st century awakes from hibernation. The ability to place humans into long-term hibernation is a premise upon which the whole tale depends. It enables Cixin to take his characters across unimaginable time spans without ageing. This in turn enables us to see the worlds and space at each point in time through the eyes of a character who's starting point (scientifically and politically speaking) is not too dissimilar from our own.

But we don't start there. In a disconnected prologue whose relevance we will not know until a long way through the 700 or so pages that follow, we start in 1453 with Constantine XI facing siege by the Ottomans and a young woman…a prostitute turned spy turned magician…a magician with the power to remove a person's brain…a magician with a secret place. It gives nothing away to say that the magician dies.

A lot of people die in this book. Some well, some horribly.

And a few survive by skill and quirks of fate and help from unexpected quarters.

We are taken to different times and different planets and Cixin is a master at creating worlds – after all why shouldn't plants be able to up-root, run away from danger, and then sink their roots back into the soil at a safe distance? Why shouldn't we hang our buildings underneath branches of huge tree-like structures, or live within a one kilometre cube? Does it matter if the sky isn't 'real' if it looks like we expect it to and behaves much the same way? What is reality anyway? That last comments sounds like something from a Douglas Adams novel, but I don't mean to suggest Adamsian humour. This is not a fantasy – there are moments of light relief, but it's drama not comedy.

If one had to say what this book is about, my answer would be: it is about what it means to be human. It doesn't come to a definitive conclusion but explores the way individual humans respond to situations and how humanity as a whole might respond when faced with complete annihilation. The obvious options are to run – head for the stars, hoping to outrun the threat – or to hide, hunker down, build the defences. This is precisely the threat that Cixin has hovering over Earth. It comes in various forms: from mere subjugation of the species to destruction of the planet to something even more unthinkable than that.

I always struggled with physics so it doesn't take me long to get lost in the speculative discourses on what might happen if we had more than three dimensions, or fewer, or if we could change the speed of light, or whether it could be possible to step outside of time (into what?) – for the most part I simply take the postulated theories as written and don't let them get in the way of a good story. There is only one point where I noticed a breakdown of internal logic. The crossing of 258 light years in a light-speed ship takes only 50-something hours within the ship's frame of reference. That was the one point where I actually interrupted my reading to thing 'hang on…???'

Then again, I think that whenever I watch 21st century science programmes. There are some things my brain just can't handle. I'll let it go. I don't read sci-fi for the science part, but for the fiction part, the speculative part about how we might react in given situations – and why other species whose history is utterly dissimilar to our own, whose life form is something we can barely imagine, how might they react – and why. And of course, underlying all of this is what it does to our spiritual frame of reference, for want of a better term, are any moral values absolute under all conditions.

It's not the job of sci-fi writers to answer that kind of question, merely to ask it – and Cixin does. He provides answers for his characters but leaves us to ponder our own.

It's a long book, but a rewarding one. Of the many questions it raised for me, the most pressing one is whether or not I now have to seek out the first two books. I think the answer to that has to be yes.

If you’re wondering whether Chinese science fiction is really for you before heading into a huge saga, we recommend you check out Cixin’s short story collection The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

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