Finally, the translation is here! I was waiting for this book for over a year…. curiously and excitedly, wondering how he is going to finish off this incredible sci-fi trilogy. The first book was already so surprising, circling around the Trisolaris computer game and the Sophons, and the beginning of the Trisolaran plans to invade the earth, and the second book surprised by a completely new narrative and completely new human dilemmas: the Wallfacers and the Wallbreakers, set to destroy the Trisolaran plans. In the first two books Liu convinced and surprised repeatedly through his creativity and the ability to think over long time spans. The technological and societal developments he painted were fascinating and bizarre, but always well described.
The same is true for the third book in the series. Death’s End again surprises with a new narrative. Its plot can stand alone, it is not a repetition of the first two novels. It features its own dilemmas and developments. It describes the problem of dark forest deterrence: would a person really carry out the threat to destroy one’s own world, if this is the only threat that holds the enemey at bay? It poses the questions whether the fate of the universe can really rest on the shoulders of one individual, and whether the brain of one human, inserted into an alien, hostile society, can serve humanity from within the enemy, from far away. It shows the cruelty and arbitrariness of time, and questions the basic laws of physics and mathematics. It draws a picture of our current universe as degenrate, because intelligent societies keep using the laws of physics as weapons in their continuous wars against each other, decreasing the dimensionality and the speed of light as a consequence.
It is the author’s strength to entangle scientifically based facts with an unparalleled creativity of what could be. What could be possible technologically, and then take it further, what would this mean societally. Like few other authors, Liu entangles technology, society, and culture. He describes why lightspeed ships were NOT build, even thought it could have been possible. Like a historian of the future, he lays down which social movements and ideologies caused which political decisions, which in turn lead to which technological developments. The scope and timespan he covers leaves me speechless.
His sociology of outer space made me believe that contact with alien civilizations is actually something we should possibly not be looking for.
For all it’s worth, I also have some criticism about the series, and the last book in particular. He is not a great writer of characters. His characters do not develop. Cheng Xin is the same caring, sensitive, and intelligent engineer in the beginning, as she is in the end. Her former boss remains the same cold-hearted, ruthless, and amibitious man throughout the novel. The love story at the end (not between those two…) remains utterly unconvincing. Psychologically, the novel is rather flat. Liu convinces on the macro-level, that is his strength: big ideas, big developments, hundreds of years.
I liked it a lot that male and female characters are distributed over the novel rather evenly in different roles and professions. The book would pass the Bechdel test, as Cheng Xin and her assistant AA frequently talk about engineering problems. In this context it is all the more surprising that Liu frames Cheng Xin’s failure in the middle of the book, as well as the tendency of the deterrence era people to refrain from decisions as ‘typically female’: as passive and submissive, seeing the reason in the lack of ‘real men’ - the men of this period apparently were ‘too feminine’, and Cheng Xin is ‘a woman, not a warrior’, and is frequently described as motherly, who sees humanity as her child. These stereotypes are not necessary for the plot, they are superficial, and not helping.
All in all, Liu pushed it maybe a bit too far in this book. More and more ideas, more and more projects, more and more surprising plot changes. There is a red thread, but it feels less coherent than the last two books. Or maybe I just got used to his style, and became more critical. Despite the criticism, his work is still a refreshing change from much other available (English) science fiction, and definitely worth reading.