AT ONE POINT in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the guilt-ridden alcoholic millionaire narrator, Eliot Rosewater, crashes a science fiction convention. He drunkenly praises the assembled writers as “the only ones who’ll talk about the really terrific changes going on” and “the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limit.” Eliot admits that the SF writers “couldn’t write for sour apples” but still holds them in high esteem in comparison to the modernist boobs his foundation generously funds: “the hell with the talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born.”
Cixin Liu is exactly the sort of writer Vonnegut had in mind, 50 years after the fact. His Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy spans hundreds of years (technically speaking, millions). It concerns at least three or four interstellar civilizations, and it includes dozens of important characters. Death’s End, translated by Ken Liu and the last and longest volume of the series, could easily be a trilogy itself. It deals with at least three distinct phases of Earth’s struggle with its first alien contactees, the Trisolarans, and against the general predatory, Hobbesian chaos that Liu depicts as the cosmic baseline. The scale — and the abandon with which Liu throws himself into it — is worth the price of admission for people who like their SF big and bold.
It’s too much, however, to say that Liu “can’t write for sour apples.” For one thing, Western readers encounter his works in translation from the Chinese — The Three-Body Problem was the first book in translation to win the Hugo Award for best novel. Even with the translation sometimes flattening his language, Liu communicates the things he cares about — magnitude, difference, despair, hope — in emphatic fashion. But his characters are, by and large, thinly drawn, especially in this last volume: when the action leaves Earth, the characters lose a degree of human emotional reality.
At bottom, the characters in Death’s End are extensions of and stand-ins for Liu’s main concern: technological models for humanity’s future in space. Liu, who worked as an engineer before becoming a writer, marries the dogged determination to reach the stars that characterizes much of SF culture with a pessimistic take on what human life among an interstellar society might actually look like. The technological feats needed to move beyond Earth’s solar system are fraught and full of hard choices: humanity must decide between pursuing faster-than-light travel and shielding our world from marauders who mount sun-destroying hit-and-run attacks. The main character, Cheng Xin, is an astrophysicist from our own time who, due to hibernation technology, winds up alive, awake, and relevant to human advancement. She is charged with making a variety of decisions about the future of humanity, and she is also a receptacle for Liu’s ideas about gender, which take a much more central role in this novel than in its two predecessors.
Cheng Xin is brilliant and morally good — too good, Liu argues, in a way that is fundamentally related to her gender. In the “dark forest” (to borrow from the title of the middle book in the trilogy) of the universe, where any interstellar civilization must assume every other civilization is an existential threat, Cheng Xin’s compassionate femininity is portrayed as a liability. Twice, her unwillingness to risk or end lives leads her to make decisions that are immensely destructive to humanity as a whole. Liu sets these decisions up with the heavy-handed allegory and furious insistence of the death traps in a torture-porn horror movie. The first time Cheng Xin endangers life on Earth, it is because she refuses to assent to the logic of the “dark forest” deterrence system created by her male colleague, Lou Ji. This involves activating a deadman’s switch that would destroy both Earth and its invaders if Trisolaris goes through with its invasion plans. Cheng Xin refuses to hit the switch; she is too attached to life. Trisolaris nearly destroys humanity, but the invaders are stopped by people — men — who act outside the range of Cheng’s decision-making power.
In her second great error, Cheng Xin declines to invest in faster-than-light travel, an unforgivable lapse to many SF fans. She has reasons for refusing: there are risks involved in faster-than-light technology, including potentially alerting uber-powerful galactic neighbors — a big no-no according to the dark forest logic she refused to obey in the struggle against the Trisolarans. Here, Cheng’s compassionate nature won’t let her risk invasion or civil war between factions with rival technological visions. This dooms humanity altogether: another alien species notices Earth and decides to tidy it up in a way that only faster-than-light ships could escape. Without spoiling what exactly they do, let’s just say you’ll never enjoy the beloved children’s classic Flat Stanley the same way again after reading this part of Death’s End. To make things worse, Cheng Xin is one of the only human survivors, and she must live with her guilt over condemning the human race to near-extinction.
Liu, however, doesn’t condemn Cheng for her actions. The surviving humans she meets point out that the decisions she made were complicated, and no one could know the right choice in such situations. Liu wantonly destroys whole solar systems, but she isn’t given to wallowing in recrimination. Destroying the Solar System, however, is hard to forgive. This brings us back to the fact that the basic conflict in the book isn’t between interstellar civilizations: it’s about gender essentialism — Cheng’s essential femininity versus the cold, hard logic of men and the cosmos. As in many of the gentler schemes of gender essentialism, Liu identifies many good things (compassion, for instance) with women, but most of these virtues are liabilities to survival in a larger sense or they run contrary to the things that science fiction traditionally values.
Where are we at the end of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past books, the works that put Chinese science fiction on the global map? We’re in a space of infinite possibility — Liu has a gift for imagining awesome and terror-inspiring feats of science and engineering — and bottomless fear. There’s no real solution to the Hobbesian mess of the “dark forest.” No one in galactic society seems to opt for the fully automated gay space luxury communism promised in Iain Banks’s Culture novels, or if they do, they don’t show up. The more advanced space civilizations — the kinds that can unilaterally, casually, destroy whole solar systems — aren’t any more enlightened than the Red Guards whose actions in the Cultural Revolution impel an astrophysicist to make contact with Trisolaris to begin with, back at the beginning of The Three-Body Problem. A certain degree of escape is possible, as Cheng Xin finds out, but only at the cost of endangering the rest of the universe. Everything costs, dearly, in Liu’s universe.
Liu clearly sympathizes with the hard-headed men (the sort of men many science fiction readers — and writers — like to imagine themselves to be) who want to take to the stars. But his pessimistic portrayal of the universe won’t let him depict expansion as the key to utopia. Survival is closer to a universal law in Liu’s world than anything else (certainly more than the supposedly baseline speed of light). But survival, and the universe, is morally disinterested and highly dangerous in its own right — and we’re stuck with it.