I finished the last book of Liu Cixin’s trilogy, Death’s End, a few weeks ago, and the first two last fall. So this review will be necessarily a bit more high-level and about my general impressions, because memory is faulty. Feel free to skip to the end for some quotes, though, because I have a habit of taking pictures to memorialize “oh yes, that’s really what it says” moments.
I can see why the series was so popular: it’s engaging, the sci-fi aspects are fun, and I found the pessimism underlying the imagined interactions with alien life forms and the supposed eventual collapse of the universe addictive.
But I can’t escape from the conclusion that Liu is sexist and appears unable to imagine characters of any depth. At first I thought that the sexism was not central to the author’s storyline, but Death’s End quickly disabused me of that notion. The entire plot seems to hinge on humanity becoming overly “effeminate” and making a catastrophic choice to designate a woman as the protector and ultimate decision-maker of the species. Taken as a whole, the downfall of humanity appears to rest on the misanthropy of one woman and the “maternal instincts” of another.
We are also treated to a series of absurdly flat relationships that fit an unimaginative, traditional dynamic that brings to mind stereotypes of 1950s America, oddly mismatched for the setting of a futuristic society in outer space.
We watch as the recipient of society’s misplaced faith is periodically woken up from near-constant hibernation to make decisions that have a disproportionate impact on the Milky Way’s population. She doesn’t so much have a story of her own: she is either unconscious, recovering her consciousness, briefly glimpsing other people living at various points in history and pining for a lost romantic opportunity, and then making snap decisions—mostly about humanity’s future rather than her own—before going back to hibernation. When death seems imminent, she even chooses to use a “sleep-aid machine” for her last space voyage. Because her preferred and habitual mode of existence doesn’t involve thinking, or much of anything at all, I guess.
Her romance is awkwardly entangled with the survival-of-humanity arc, both of which end on a very one-dimensional, uncompelling note. As a reader, you might be forgiven for concluding that this note is actually a constant throughout the story.
Selection of quotes from the books:
In Chen Xin’s subconscious, she was a protector, not a destroyer; she was a woman, not a warrior.
On why humanity falls.
… “Deterrence made a comfortable cradle, and as humanity napped inside, it regressed from an adult to a child.”
“Don’t you know that there are no more men on Earth?” someone from Gravity shouted.
On why humanity falls.
… the bodies of modern humans had changed considerably from the past. They were more flexible and agile compared to past generations, but were no longer adapted to boring, repetitious physical labor.
On why humanity can’t farm anymore.
No doubt this deeply melancholy man was very attractive to a woman’s eyes. But this didn’t worry him, because the man was so obviously consumed by his despair that nothing else had any meaning for him.
Because if man #2 had not been so consumed by his despair, the woman in question would certainly go for him, so man #1 had best worry in that case.
“I’m sorry, love. I’ve aged eight years,” Keiko Yamasuki said.
“Even so, you’re still a year younger than me,” he said as he looked her over. Time seemed to have left no mark on her body, but she looked pale and weak in the fog’s watery moonlight. In the fog and moonlight, she reminded him of that night in the bamboo grove in their yard in Japan. “Didn’t we agree that you would enter hibernation two years after me? Why have you waited all this time?”
Because when you’ve spent eight years working alone on your partnership’s mutual goals, definitely apologize for aging. Then be consoled because hey, at least you’re still a year younger than your no-longer-hibernating partner. But then explain why you chose to work an extra six years instead of preserving your body.
Chen Xin had the impression that many people here seemed to be from the Common Era, but soon realized she was wrong ….
Her impression was due to the fact that she saw some men who looked like the men she was used to.
The men who had disappeared during the Deterrence Era had returned. This was another age capable of producing men.
Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. This seemed to another swing of the pendulum: the leisure and comfort of the last age had disappeared, and it was once again a harried society. In this age, most people no longer belonged to the leisure class, but had to work for a living.
AA and Chen Xin didn’t bother to watch more news. It was possible that, just like Cao Bin said, the Bunker World had approached paradise. They wanted to see what paradise looked like, but they didn’t dare look. If everything was heading toward ruination, the more beautiful it all was, the more pain they would suffer. In any event, it was a paradise that was collapsing in the terror of death.
Definitely go back to sleep instead.