Death's End (Remembrance of Earth's Past)
by Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu;
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765377104
Date: 20 September 2016 List Price $26.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Death's End by the legendary Chinese author Cixin Liu is the third in the trilogy that began in the Hugo-winning The Three Body Problem and continued in The Dark Forrest. Like the first book, Death's End is translated by the Hugo-winning Ken Liu (no relation). Even more than the first two books, Death's End is complex, grand-scale science fiction. Parts of the book, especially near the end, resemble Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men in scope. The book is full of old fashioned sense of wonder with some truly awe-inspiring scenes. Unfortunately, it also has moments where a big idea is undermined, leaving the reader wondering why the author did this.
The early chapters of Death's End are set during the early years of The Dark Forest with Earth struggling to find some way of defeating the alien Trisolarans. At the start, Yun Tianming, dying of an incurable cancer, purchases the rights to a star (though the Stars Our Destination project) as a gift to Cheng Xin, the one girl in his life who was kind to him. His attempt at euthanasia is stopped by Cheng Xin who has become an important aide at the intelligence agency charged with finding out more about the Trisolarans. She has proposed a way to send a lightweight spacecraft, housing only a human brain, to spy on the Trisolarans. Since removing the brain would kill a person, the mission requires someone willing to be killed for the cause. At this appeal from the woman he loves, Tianming volunteers for the Staircase Program. His brain is sent into space while Cheng Xin is put in suspended animation to act as liaison in the future.
In the book's second section, taking place after the events in The Dark Forest, Xin is revived because the UN wants to colonize the planets circulating her star. Luo Ji, the hero of The Dark Forest, has become the aging Swordholder, the person with control of the button that would announce the location of the Trisolaran's planet (and Earth) to a universe full of hostile lifeforms if the Trisolarans invade. This obvious analogy to the Cold War's Mutually Assured Destruction has ushered in the Deterrence Era. Concerned that Ji is aging, the UN chooses Xin as his replacement. Immediately after she replaces Ji, Trisolaran space probes attack, Xin has only minutes to decide if she can press the button to destroy two worlds.
The book is full of wonderful ideas and images. At one point, all of humanity is forced to relocate to Australia. At another, Tianming gets around Trisolaran censorship by telling Xin fairy tales that the greatest minds on Earth then try to decipher for hidden meanings. There's a horrifying scene of spaceships' lift-off blasts killing hundreds of people at a crowded spaceport. And the end of the book literally brings everything around to the end of time.
Unfortunately, the book has some flaws too. In several spots Liu seems to change his mind and retract a situation, restoring the previous status quo, essentially turning several chapters moot. His treatment of Xin sometimes seems sexist, implying she is weak because as a woman she is maternal. For instance, she has to turn over the management of her company to a man because she lacks "the skill or the will" to use the company to invent faster than light spaceships. There are also many places where the book talks at the reader, telling instead of showing what this future looks like. And, aside from Tianming and Xin, characterization is very superficial.
Death's End, as the final book in a trilogy, does not stand alone and should only be read after the first two books.
Death's End is the type of grand-scale science fiction that we rarely see these days. For most of the book, the fate of humanity is at stake and survival depends not on weapons or military tactics but on thinking, inventing, and interpreting clues. While some flaws exist, they are minimal when compared to so much that the book gets right. There is a reason why this trilogy is considered the best science fiction epic in China. We are fortunate that it has finally been translated for English readers.