Tag Archives: Cheng Xin

Impressions of “Death’s End,” by Cixin Liu

Death’s End by Cixin Liu is the third book in the Three-Body Problem trilogy, and a truly wonderful conclusion. Death’s End is a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy. It is a wonderful complement to The Three-Body Problem, bringing back the scientific focus and tension and leaving behind the repetition of The Dark Forest As Three-Body implicitly examined the Drake Equation in depth, Death’s End does the same for dimensional projection. What seemed like irrelevant loose ends from The Dark Forest‘s emphasis on the importance of political commissars, such as the fates of the warships Bronze Age and Gravity, become into the main narrative. And, I suspect, it only failed to achieve a second Hugo award for the series because of politics.

Some quick words on the trilogy: The first book, The Three-Body Problem is perhaps the best “hard science fiction” book I have ever read — considering that is the genre of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Crichton, that is saying a lot. The second book, a direct sequel called The Dark Forest, is a disappointment. Cixin Liu is writing in a Communist country, and long speeches about the need for political commissars and sudden complete trust in the well meaning and efficient nature of governments implied the book was written to curry political favor. Death’s End is the final installment.

Death’s End explores the idea of dimensional projection, or what an object would seem to be in higher or lower dimensional space-time. This concept was introduced near the end of The Three-Body Problem, but it is the focus in Death’s End. Specific examples of projection or transposition in Death’s End include

  • Projection onto the surface of a black whole
  • Four-dimensional projection into three dimensions
  • Three dimensional projection into two dimensions
  • One time dimensional projection into two dimensions

Cixin Liu is not the first writer to explore dimensional unfolding, but he may be the best to do so in a science fiction context. Realism, the philosophical idea that true reality of an object is the completely folded state was explored by St. Thomas Aquinas. The horror writer Jon Padget does the same, using numerous folded or reduced-dimensional imagery to get the point across: the fog itself, it has so many names: the Origami, Daddy Longlegs, Snavley’s Ultimate Ventriloquist.

And in popular religious writing, dimensional transformation is the same thing that C.S. Lewis called transposition in The Weight of Glory. So for example in my impressions of Weight of Glory I wrote

So when we pray for a miracle, in the past, present or future, we are praying for the projection of time that we see to be in conformance with our request. We are praying for time to be rotated in a specific way, in the way we might rotate a model pyramid to see the triangle, or the square, or the point.

But what Aquinas, Padget and Lewis explored by philosophy, horror, and apologetic, Cixin Liu does through hard science fiction. Relative frames of reference, gravitational waves and quantum entanglement, high and low gravity black holes, and string theory are all introduced in a fun and exciting way.

Each Three-Body book has a primary character who sets the theme. The Three-Body Problem is about Ye Wenjie, a young woman astrophysicist living in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, and Wang Miao, an applied materials researcher in Beijing during modern times. The Dark Forest is about Luo Ji, a failed astrophysicist turned sociologists. Death’s End is about Cheng Xin, also a young woman astrophysicist.

Of the characters introduced in the series the only well developed and realistic character is Ye Wenjie. She is perhaps the most memorable character I read since Fire from the Sun, also about the Cultural Revolution. Cheng Xin, Death’s End‘s protagonist is almost Ye’s polar opposite — an archetype more than a complex character, she is repeatedly compared to the Virgin Mary as an ideal woman. Indeed, I suspect this is a reason that Death’s End, unlike Three-Body, did not win the Hugo Award. The days where a book about a Catholic monk could win that award are long gone due to an ongoing culture war in that community.

A fascinating article by the author, “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the best of All Possible Earths: Three Body and Chinese Science Fiction, is a must read. To give you a sense of the author’s thoughtfulness, I present these paragraphs from the piece below:

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, science fiction became a tool for popularizing scientific knowledge, and its main intended readers were children. Most of these stories put technology at the core and contained little humanism, featuring simplistic characters and basic, even naïve literary techniques. Few of the novels ventured outside the orbit of Mars, and most stuck to the near future. In these works, science and technology were always presented as positive forces, and the technological future was always bright.

An interesting observation can be made when one surveys the science fiction published during this period. In the early years after the Communist Revolution, politics and revolutionary fervor infused every aspect of daily life, and the very air one breathed seemed filled with propaganda for Communist ideals. Given this context, one might have expected that science fiction would also be filled with descriptions of Communist utopias of the future. But, as a matter of fact, not a single work of this type can be found. There were practically no science fiction stories that featured Communism as the subject, not even simplistic sketches to promote the concept.

I read Death’s End in the Audible edition.