Saturday, May 14, 2022

Review: Death's End by Cixin Liu

Death’s End is the final book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and it makes me wonder what exactly about Earth the author considers worth remembering.

About four fifths of the way through this last installment, I remarked that a better name for the trilogy would have been The Dark Forest the title of the second book, but also the name of the kill-or-be-killed principle driving the inter-civilization conflicts of the series. The first two books of the series followed Earth learning about the Dark Forest principle, culminating in their discovery of how to leverage this principle to hold off the invading Trisolaris Force in a mutually-assured destruction gambit. In this third book, the Dark Forest is revealed to be far more populated than we originally guessed, with inter-galaxy solar system-destroying missiles and alien civilizations living in four dimensional hypercubes and two dimensional planes.

The author’s title selection becomes clearer in the final fifth of this book. With the last handful of humans chased into tiny pockets of the universe to survive, humans – and other species, it is suggested – become very focused on being remembered. They invest exorbitant resources to create a tomb or museum for some unknown future civilization to discover, and they risk the destruction of the universe just to leave an extra 5kg of memory storage. But what part of humanity deserves to be preserved?

Cixin Liu portrays two aspects of humanity as beautiful and admirable, and I find the selection of these two a little icky. The first of these is art: Trisolarans appreciate human art and during the Deterrence Era, and create their own works of human-inspired art. Humans of the 21st century reflect sadly on the forgotten poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, irrelevant in the 25th century. Humanity’s tomb/museum features the Mona Lisa (a callback to Luo Ji’s romantic meander around The Louvre in The Dark Forest), and Cheng Xin carefully rescues Van Gogh’s Starry Night on humanity’s only curve propulsion faster-than-lightspeed ship. Rather less care is invested in the rescue of other humans.

The second of these virtues is love – but the forms of love that are venerated are rather limited. We don’t see a love for humanity. Humans are portrayed as small-minded, hypocritical, and prone to worshiping individuals. They argue about investment vehicles as the end of the world approaches; they discuss the quality of the fish they bought and their electricity bills; they apply to be the human battalion of the anti-human Trisolaran army; they pray to the Trisolarans, to Chen Xin, to Luo Ji as saviors. Cheng Xin is motivated to save humanity out of a sense of responsibility, but not out of a sense of love. Reflecting on her life and the decisions she makes, she emphasizes this sense of responsibility and how it distinguishes her from the rest of humanity:

All my life has been spent climbing up a flight of stairs made of responsibility. [...] And now, I’ve climbed to the apex of responsibility: I am responsible for the fate of the universe. [...] Unfortunately I have not been able to walk the ordinary person’s path. My path is, in reality, the journey of a civilization.

Within the narrative itself, the author often describes Cheng’s feelings of duty as ones of maternal love or maternal instinct. Given how often Cheng Xin is repulsed by the culture of these humans she feels beholden to protect (particularly the androgenous gender expression of the men), how much she keeps herself apart from other humans and from society, I don’t recognize love in this emotion at all. I wonder a little at the author’s perception of maternal love; it seems rather transactional or biological:

In this family-less age, mother’s love was a rare thing. The welfare state that seemed like heaven satiated the children’s need for the love of a mother.

Other family bonds are shallow: Yun Tianming’s sister encourages him to seek euthanasia to protect her inheritance. Friendships and collaborations are de-emphasized: one of my favourite scenes was AA and Cheng discovering how curve propulsion works over a 21st century-style bubble bath. However, rather than the warmth and equality of this friendship between two women being the emotional strength Cheng needs to overcome her guilt and face the end of the universe, AA is thrown to the sidelines to introduce a new heterosexual, romantic relationship.

It is romantic love that, above all, is venerated as beautiful in this series – but again, it is a strange, martyr-like incel-y form of love. Awkward and ugly university student Yun Tianming falls in love with the beautiful and smart Cheng Xin, who barely acknowledges his existence. He buys her an entire solar system, and volunteers for euthanasia to advance her Trisolaran diplomacy strategy. She discovers his love for her only after it is too late, and cries over his dead body. Later, he is resurrected by the Trisolarans and she is excited to see him, and remarks upon how physically fit and tan he looks. The solar system being insufficient, he gifts her an entire universe – allowing her a chance at surviving the death of the main universe. “He’s quite a man to be able to give the woman he loved a star and a universe” Cheng’s end-of-the-universe boyfriend remarks.

Overall, the masses are forgettable and mostly silly. The positive aspects of humanity are grand romantic sacrifices by a few pure-hearted individuals, and art created by a few brilliant individuals, and the goal of civilization is to remember them. 

Although Cixin Liu’s perspectives on the value of humanity (and particularly masculinity) were questionable, I really enjoyed parts of this book. I liked the development of dimensional warfare, and the game theory/arms race aspects of civilizational struggle. However, while the message of this part of the book seems to be that there is no hope for any civilization to behave any way other than purely rational, some parts of the narrative belie this theme. Yun Tianming’s grand romantic gestures were surely not utilitarian or egoistic, and Trisolarans also irrationally provide humans with life-saving information out of admiration for Luo Ji. This same tension arises in other themes: technology is not only the sole way to survive the Dark Forest but must also be embraced. To revert to a non-space exploring society once space travel has been discovered is self-limiting and silly. Other technological regressions are similarly derided. On the other hand, the narrative bemoans humans losing the ability to communicate, problem-solve, or express masculinity, due to the advance of technology. (If it seems like I emphasize the role of masculinity in the book too much, then you must not have read it.) The fairy tales – coded messages from Yun Tianming to instruct Earth how they could avoid a Dark Forest attack – were a lot of fun to decode, and that I was able to piece together much of the message on my own is a testament to Cixin Liu’s worldbuilding. It’s a series worth reading for its creative exploration of astrosociology and its epic scope, but a bleak view of civilization.

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