Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review: "Death's End" by Cixin Liu

Death’s End (2016)
Cixin Liu (1963)

Translated by Ken Liu
604 pages

[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the third book in a trilogy, and it’s not possible to write about it without including some context from the first two books, The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest. So, if you haven’t read the first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review of The Three-Body Problem here; if you’ve read that, but not The Dark Forest, you’ll find my review of that second story here.]

Oh my.

In Death’s End, the concluding novel in Cixin Liu’s mesmerizing and mind-bending science fiction trilogy, Liu explores the full ramifications of the dark vision of life in the universe he introduced readers to in the first two novels. When looking up at the night sky, Liu clearly does not fantasize about potentially thrilling and enriching encounters with galactic civilizations in the vein of science fiction adventure stories such as Star Trek or Star Wars; quite the contrary, he envisions, to quote one of his characters from the second book,
the universe as a dark forest. Civilization [as] an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care … because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. (484, The Dark Forest
Popular, romanticized views of space exploration and discovery evaporate quickly in the searing heat of Liu’s all too plausible premise.

In the opening story of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, humanity discovers that life in the universe is much more prevalent, and dangerous, than previously imagined. This revolution in humanity’s understanding of the cosmos turns out to be but the tip of the iceberg, however, and in the second volume, The Dark Forest, Liu lays out the harrowing logic behind his bleak vision of the universe.

Early in that second story, Ye Wenjie, the physicist who in the first book revealed Earth’s location to the Trisolaran civilization at our nearest neighbor star, cryptically suggests to young physicist Luo Ji that he study “cosmic sociology.” She briefly mentions to him two fundamental axioms of her newly conceived field: “First: survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” (13, The Dark Forest)

Ye Wenjie goes on to hint at “two other important concepts: chains of suspicion and the technological explosion.” (14, The Dark Forest) As readers, the importance of concepts such as life’s ferocious survival instinct and the inescapable conflicts caused by life’s exponential growth in the face of fixed space and resources, as well as the unpredictable timing and scope of technological revolutions, follow readily from our knowledge and understanding of the development of civilizations on Earth.

The cryptic chains of suspicion idea, however, seems to represent for Liu the crux of the danger when considering cosmic sociology: to put it simply, no galactic civilization can know a priori, upon discovering the presence of another civilization, whether it is benevolent or malicious. Given that uncertainty, together with the axioms of cosmic sociology, the unpredictable rapidity of technological expansion, and the challenges of the immense interstellar distances and cultural differences naturally in play, the only safe bet for a civilization is to remain hidden. And, if one cosmic civilization does discover another, the only viable option is to immediately destroy it, for fear of otherwise being discovered and destroyed first --- for Liu, the inescapable risk of hesitation is annihilation.

Luo Ji, introduced to the idea of cosmic sociology as the The Dark Forest opens, gradually comes to understand its implications, and in the end uses his new found knowledge to divert the Trisolaran invasion fleet, and so save Earth, by establishing a dangerously tenuous balance of mutually assured destruction. The stakes, though, rise dramatically in the final story, Death’s End, as events upset the delicate balance established by Luo Ji, and humankind must face the full consequences of becoming a visible presence in the dark forest described by Ye Wenjie’s theory of cosmic sociology.

The already expansive, if bleak, scope of Liu’s vision blossoms in Death’s End to challenge everything we think we know about the universe. In a scene set back in the time of the first book, Liu hints at his interpretation of the reality visible to us when we examine the universe beyond our solar system. Ye Wenjie’s daughter, Yang Dong, has found her cherished career as a research physicist in ruins as the Trisolarans have stopped mankind’s progress in the sciences by randomly altering the results of fundamental experiments in physics; Yang Dong finds herself adrift, at a loss to move forward with her life. In a fit of nostalgia, she visits her former lab, where she meets a scientist who has created a model that simulates changes in Earth’s physical environment over millennia, and that allows him to see how altering or removing various factors at a particular point in time can influence Earth’s subsequent development. When he demonstrates how dramatically different Earth would look if life had never developed --- not simply absence of roads and cities, but fundamentally different atmospheric and terrestrial conditions --- Yang Dong finds her life completely unmoored: what meaning has physics at all if everything can be altered by the presence of life? As the story proceeds, the full implications of this reality become clear.

Lest one think that the central themes in this trilogy simply represent an interesting plot line created by Liu, he makes clear in an Author’s Postscript to The Three-Body Problem that he considers the ideas at the heart of this trilogy as deadly serious:
There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naïveté and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease. But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.
I think it should be precisely the opposite: Let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different peoples and civilizations that make up humanity. But for the universe outside the solar system, we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space. For a fragile civilization like ours, this is without a doubt the most responsible path.

Turning on its head the typical vision of the universe found in traditional science fiction --- of a thrilling future expansion of humankind out into the cosmos --- this trilogy from Liu will leave readers looking up at the night sky with a newfound respect, if not also a shudder of fear.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf