Welcome to the “Endings” series of posts. So often a piece of art captivates you from the beginning, only to fizzle out with an ending that isn’t fully developed or satisfying. While reviews for these pieces exist in entirety, I thought I’d have fun just focusing on the endings. Was it satisfying or not? It probably goes without saying, but spoilers will abound here. Read on at your own risk…or pleasure?
Liu Cixin may be the greatest science fiction writer to ever live. He’s certainly the most popular sci-fi writer alive today. Maybe he’s lucky that his target audience is the most populated country in the world (China) but as his works are steadily translated for readers worldwide it seems clear to me that his success is hardly limited to China.
At any rate, after years of hearing his name repeated on the sci-fi forums I finally picked up the work considered by many to be his Magnum Opus: the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. In keeping with the theme I’ll avoid discussing the first 2 books, and instead focus on how things wrapped up in the final book: Death’s End.
Like any monumental science fiction epic the span of this series is staggering. Ignoring the first two books, this final one stretches from the Fall of Constantinople all the way to the end of the universe, billions of years later. Taking a reader that’s already heavily involved with characters and story lines from the first books and then guiding them across billions of years with over a dozen new characters without losing their interest is a most difficult feat. Cixin made it look easy.
Without digging too deeply into the plot let me simply say that I had no complaints here. There are necessarily holes in plot lines as the story hops forward by 50 years, 100 years, etc. I’m sure Wade’s story as the owner of Cheng’s company would be an interesting book on its own, but I’m content letting my imagination fill in the holes with his and others’ stories. As I neared the end of the book I’ll admit I was a bit anxious to hear about one particular character: Luo Ji. Suffice it to say Cixin clearly understood this concern and closed that particular narrative with poignant solemnity.
Beyond the plot (who did what and when?) we have powerful themes (why did they do it? why does anyone do anything?) that grow from ripples in a small Earth pond (from the first book) to ripples across galaxies (by the last book). Science fiction has long given us the means to examine ideas that were otherwise too big, controversial, or outright strange for fiction grounded in reality. The translators notes at the start of the book are especially interesting, noting how careful Cixin has been to avoid writing things that would get him locked up by the not-so-forgiving government censors famously scrutinizing all Chinese art. For example, he couldn’t talk about his own government’s war crimes, but the war crimes of Trisolarans? No problem!
A few thematic ideas resonated with me in particular. First, we had the concept of the Dark Forest. This chilling thought experiment suggests that broadcasting electromagnetic signals across the universe ends about as well as walking into a police station and shooting a few bullets indiscriminately in the floor and ceiling. The theory suggests upon discovery of a new species, a sufficiently advanced civilization’s best course of action is to eliminate the newly discovered species before the newcomer’s technology reaches the level of a threat. Considering our own human history of conquest and exploration this idea rings true to me! Luckily, we’ve got another large idea to counter this concern…the size of the universe.
With any good “hard” sci-fi work you’ll find a lot of discussion of the limits of light speed, and this series is no different. Thankfully the universe is huge, and even signals from Earth traveling at their maximum speed (see: light speed) would likely decay greatly by the time they reach another civilization. We’re hopefully okay for now, at least until we figure out how to start using the Sun as a signal amplifier…
Beyond the “dark forest” concept there are many other tasty, imaginative ideas to be found as we wrap up the series. Too many, in fact, for me to discuss in detail. We get glimpses of truly advanced civilizations, an idea of cosmic history stretching from the big bang to the end of the universe. Closer to home we see the worst of humanity…followed by the best! And this brings us to the true ending of endings.
To quickly summarize, in our last chapters we see all of humanity, save two humans and a third brain, destroyed. We’re reminded of the finality of death, the insignificance of humanity compared to our solar system (let alone our galaxy or our universe), and the fragility of life. Up until this point (most of the way through the third book) we’ve watched as generations of humans struggled to survive, seemingly all for naught in the end. I feel Cixin could have ended it there, but instead those few survivors close the tale with a story of hope, joy, and life. Not only do they escape the destruction of humanity by an uncaring, anonymous alien force, but they go on to thrive until the end of the universe. In the end none of us really expects to survive, but we do hope a piece of us continues to exist past our demise. The ending gave us that tiny hope, enough to leave me feeling optimistic despite 99.99999999% of humanity being erased. A small flame in an ocean of darkness buoys us, the ratio of dark to light notwithstanding.