With its completion with Death’s End, I can now say that the Remembrance of Earth’s Past is my all-time favorite science fiction series (says the noob of a sci fi fan). It opens just like you would expect the final volume of an insanely ambitious hard science fiction series to open, with a magician offering to help the emperor prevent the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Wait, what? This has never been a series interested in hewing to convention. And so we get a story spanning a few million years (specifically, 1453 – 18906416).
“Once, ancient Romans had whistled in their grand, magnificent baths, thinking that their empire, like the granite that made up the walls of the pools in which they floated, would last forever. No banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything.”
(SPOILERS for the first two books in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series below.)
Did I say that Death’s End is insanely ambitious? It purports to encompass most of the history of humanity, and of the universe, within its scope. And, indeed, all things must end. But nor is “life . . . nothing but a fragile, thin, soft shell clinging to the surface of this planet.” As another work of science fiction put it, “Life finds a way.”
After a prologue that is bizarre and kind of awesome and strictly not necessary, and a brief interlude with Yang Dong shortly before she commits suicide, the story proper opens shortly after the Trisolaris invasion fleet becomes public knowledge (the Crisis Era). Yun Tianming is a sad sack, a loner, an entirely undistinguished scientist. But the thread of his life has the chance to play a greater role in the pattern of human history when it comes back into contact with his college crush, Cheng Xin.
Yun Tianming is a bit of a head fake. Cheng Xin is not only Death’s End protagonist, but is far more central to the story, heck, to the entire series, than any of the characters from the first two books. Cheng Xin is, in at least one way, the best protagonist in the series. That is, she is the most memorable. Not the best, but she is the easiest to keep distinct in your mind as a character. Or at least that was my experience. She is no Luo Ji, though. The Trisolarans are right—Luo Ji is a mighty warrior. We do see Luo Ji again, but Cheng Xin’s story dominates the book in a way that Wang Miao and Luo Ji never did.
The Wallfacer project isn’t the UN’s only response to the Trisolarans. Cheng Xin becomes a part of the parallel Staircase Program. The Staircase Program ultimately settles on a truly science fictional idea—using nuclear pulse propulsion to send a frozen brain light years through space.
“At the same time, in Russia and China, Topol and Deongfeng missiles were also rising in the sky. The scene resembled a doomsday scenario, but Cheng Xin could tell by the curvature of the rocket trails that these were orbital launches instead of intercontinental strikes. These devices, which could have killed billions, would never return to the surface of the Earth. They would pool their enormous power to accelerate a feather to 1 percent of the speed of light.”
We’re not going to spend the entire book stuck back in the Crisis Era, though. The same hibernation Luo Ji took advantage of in The Dark Forest is available to Cheng Xin, and she makes good use of it. When she first reawakens, Luo Ji singlehandedly holds the Trisolarans at bay as Swordholder. He wields Dark Forest deterrence.
Ok, now this is REALLY SPOILER territory for The Dark Forest. In The Dark Forest, humans discovered why the universe is so quiet. Given an infinite number of stars, there are infinite habitable planets, infinite civilizations, infinite supercivilizations, and infinite supercivilizations that view any intelligent life as a potential threat. And if you’re a supercivilization, you don’t need to build a system the size of a small moon to destroy a planet.
“‘Dark forest attacks all share two qualities: one, they’re casual, two they’re economical.’ ‘Elaborate, please.’ ‘These attacks are not part of some interstellar war, but a matter of conveniently eliminating possible threats. By “casual,” what I mean is that the only basis for the attack is the exposure of the target’s location. There will be no reconnaissance or exploration conducted against the target beforehand. For a supercivilization, such exploration is more expensive than a blind strike. By “economical,” what I mean is that the attack will employ the least expensive method: using a small, worthless projectile to trigger the destructive potential already present in the target star system.’”
At least now we know what happened to the Moon in Seveneves.
If that doesn’t sound bad enough, things get worse.
Death’s End continues and expands on the best aspect of The Dark Forest—balls-to-the-wall crazy science, and lots of it. There are gigantic space cities. “[A] regular cylinder that stimulated gravity with the centrifugal force generated by spinning. With a length of seven kilometers, its useable interior surface area was 659 square kilometers, about half the sizes of ancient Beijing. Once, about twenty million inhabitants had lived here.” There are a few dozen more, like that or not. There is light speed travel. Well, near-light speed travel—“If there really were a Creator, the only thing he welded shut in all Creation was the speed of light.” And then there are antimatter weapons, artificial black holes, multiple dimensions, a circumsolar particle accelerator, and, for lack of a better word, vacuoles.
But the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series has always been science fiction with a capital SCIENCE. Not only does Death’s End have a more relatable protagonist. It has, by a fair margin, the best writing of the series, especially the pacing and plotting. Liu (The Lius?) can throw out a hell of a wham line. “Tianming, did you know that the euthanasia law was passed specifically for you?”
By the way, the Trisolarans make great villains (I’m not so sure they qualify as antagonists; the antagonist is more often physics and humanity’s current understanding of it.) They aren’t wantonly cruel, but they give as little thought to humanity’s pain as the wolf gives that of the sheep. One trend in modern villainy I’ve really come to find annoying is the bad guy going out of his way to show just how EVUL he is. Think Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham killing Guy of Gisbourne for little to no reason. In reality, even despots need allies. Apropos, I just finished reading a biography of King John. He had a distinct tendency toward cruelty, and it made him a weak king. Tywin Lannister wouldn’t have been the most feared man in England, he would have been the most hated, and it would have cost him power. One of the high marks for Amazon’s Sneaky Pete is that the bad guy played by Bryan Cranston is so rational, which doesn’t stop him from being evil but does make him a much more dangerous foe. Ok, digression over.
The Remembrance of Earth’s Past has always been chock full of social commentary, albeit rarely of the Anvilicious sort (perhaps aided by the language and cultural barriers). He sees environment as having an enormous influence on human society, and humans also as being prone to cyclical thinking reacting against the past as much as the environment. Thus humanity vacillates wildly: “The repressive militaristic uniformity of the Great Ravine; the optimism and romanticism of the latter half of the Crisis Era; the hedonistic freedom and indolence of the Deterrence Era.” Like Joe Haldeman in The Forever War, Liu touches on the idea of a trend toward feminization. Men in the Deterrence Era are so feminine that Cheng Xin initially doesn’t realize that they are men. Liu seems to tie this directly to a “half century of peace and ease brought about by the Deterrence Era [that] accelerated the trend.” When things get hard again later, the trend reverses. I’m not so sure. It is perhaps no accident that Haldeman and Liu are both men. If you don’t think “masculinity, as traditionally defined, [i]s considered an ideal,” just pick up a romance novel. Any era that makes Mike Rowe a sex symbol still puts a premium on masculinity.
I find Death’s End, and the series in general, most fascinating, though, as a product of atheism. Not just a work influenced by atheism, or the product of an atheist (I have no idea if Cixin Liu is or isn’t), but a work that is the product of an atheistic society. And not just in the more direct ways it addresses religion (“The discovery of the dark forest state of the universe was a giant blow to most major religions, especially Christianity”). Or even Cheng Xin repeatedly playing the role of either Eve or Messiah (“I want to tell all those who believe in God that I am not the Chosen One. I also want to tell all the atheists that I am not a history-maker. I am but an ordinary person.”)
I distinguish between a work written by an atheist and the product of an atheistic society because works written by Western atheists, especially American atheists, are still working from essentially a Judeo-Christian perspective. Even if they are reacting against it, their work can still be defined in relation to it. The typical nihilism in modern storytelling, then, is an act of rebellion that we can try to rationalize away—for there to be a rebellion, there must be a dominant order. The nihilism of Death’s End, on the other hand, is pervasive, and thus terrifying. Other books are dark in a way that makes you happy you can set them aside and return to normal life after you’re done reading. The darkness of Death’s End is fundamental, and reaches beyond the four corners of the book. The Trisolaran threat, the threat of a Dark Forest strike, the mindboggling timescale, space itself, all serve to reinforce that underlying nihilism. After all, is there anything more frightening than space to the atheist? They look up and see not the glory of God’s creation but instead an infinite emptiness creating ever more oppressive loneliness. Liu returns to it, again and again.
“Death is the only lighthouse that is always lit.”
“The child that was human civilization had opened the door to her home and glanced outside. The endless night terrified her so much that she shuddered against the expansive and profound darkness, and shut the door firmly.”
“She finally understood how she was but a mote of dust in a grand wind, a small leaf drifting over a broad river.”
But because I could not so easily dismiss it, I was left wondering as I read the book, and am left wondering still today weeks after finishing it, whether it meant as hopeful. Keynes was right. “In the long run we are all dead.” Toggle the end date for your book far enough and you’ll get there. Even the Bible ends with Revelation. Humanity escapes catastrophe miraculously, but it’s going to get us all eventually.
And so we return to the opaque allegory of Cheng Xin, our Eve and Messiah. Is she savior of bringer of destruction? Is her weakness a damnation of us or merely of herself? Is it even really weakness at all?