I read this 600-page book twice in one year because I didn’t know what to make of it the first time I did. It was both impressively thought-provoking and infuriating at the same time. On my first ride around the block, I definitely didn’t like it as much as I did the two previous books but it is the sort of book that worked on me weeks and months after I turned the last page. Last month, I decided to revisit it and found that the book had improved in the intervening time. Of course, the book had not changed one whit but maybe I had. Or at least my attitude towards it had. A little. Enough to move the needle.
I am not going to even bother being coy about spoilers in this review because I don’t believe there is a meaningful way to discuss it without talking about the specifics of the plot.
Hell was not on Earth, but in heaven.
I think what turned me off in my first reading is the “old man yells at clouds” vibes that the Mr Liu was putting out. There are certain progressive trends in society that irks him enough that he felt the need to criticise it multiple times throughout the novel. One thing he obviously loathe is the how some men tended towards androgyny in appearance, but he exaggerated it in his fictional future to the degree that someone from our era couldn’t tell even men and women apart,
The individuals… had smooth, lovely faces; long hair that draped over their shoulders; slender, soft bodies—as if their bones were made of bananas. Their movements were graceful and gentle, and their voices, carried to her by the breeze, were sweet and tender…. Back in her century, these people would have been considered ultra-feminine.
And Mr Liu made it clear that this is not just a neutral extrapolation of current trends. He was clearly trying to make a point with linking femininity to being ineffectual, weak and wrongheaded, incapable to doing what is necessary, particularly when he pointed out how a “feminised humankind” condemned a hero from the previous book, one which even their alien enemies, the Trisolarans, respect,
From now on, even if the feminized humankind saw him as a devil and a monster, they all had to admit that his victory was unsurpassed in the entire history of civilization.
Mr Liu posited that this weak, feminised version of humanity came about because of an unprecedented era of comfort. This idea that times of plenty and abundance create weak people goes a long way back. It was even mentioned in Histories, where Herodotus narrated that after the Persians overthrew the Medes, they then suggested to their leader, Cyrus the Great, that perhaps they should leave their small and poor homeland and settle somewhere nicer. Cyrus replied:
Go ahead and do this, but if you do so, be prepared no longer to be rulers but rather subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.Histories (430 BCE) by Herodotus
I think this sentiment is most succinctly worded by novelist G. Michael Hopf who wrote,
Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.Those Who Remain (2016) by G. Michael Hopf
And we also see this in how Frank Herbert explained why the Emperor’s Sardaukar and the Fremen of Arrakis are such fearsome fighters in Dune. Historians are not unanimous on this, and while there are historical narratives which do conform to this narrative, there are plenty more that don’t. Regardless, discussing this is beyond the scope of this review. My issue is specifically on Liu Cixin’s formulation of this idea, which is a more explicitly misogynistic version of it. What he (gleefully) suggests is that this weakness is linked to femininity,
In a tiny office formed from composite partitions, Cheng Xin saw the mayor. He was very young, and his feminized, handsome face looked as exhausted as the others. He also looked a bit dazed and adrift, as though the load he had been given was beyond the ability of his fragile generation to bear.
And when hard times returned in the world even further in the future of the book, Mr Liu capped his thesis by saying,
The men who had disappeared during the Deterrence Era had returned. This was another age capable of producing men.
I do not believe that this is a fault of the translation or that I am reading too much into it. When you take this setting that Mr Liu created and contrast it with the personal journey of Death’s End protagonist, Cheng Xin, against characters like Luo Ji and Wade, Mr Liu’s views on women and womanhood is pretty clear.
Some may find it frustrating and difficult to root for Cheng Xin who seems to doom humanity with every decision she makes, but when one thinks of her as an allegorical concept, it all clicks together. This is utterly lost in translation but in Chinese,
- Cheng Xin’s name is 程心 which is a play on the words 誠心, meaning “from the heart”, “true heart” or “sincerity”.
- Luo Ji’s name 羅輯 is a play on the word 邏輯 which means “logic”.
- Wade’s name was transliterated in the original Chinese text as 维德 (wéi dé) which means “upholding virtue”, eschewing the more common transliteration 韦德 which is a meaningless pair of characters that just means “Wade”.
Ultimately, the story of Death’s End is driven by the tension of the heart versus logic and the upholding of virtues. And when humanity chose Cheng Xin (heart) to replace Luo Ji (logic) instead of Wade (virtue or principles) as the Swordholder, they were immediately plunged into years of strife and hardship. The story then pit Cheng Xin and Wade again later in the story and when the heart won out again, it ultimately ended in the doom of humanity. And both times, the situations caused by Cheng Xin’s decisions were reversed or mitigated by other characters who acted in accordance to logic and principles—and all of these characters happen to be men.
Again, this is not a coincidence. Liu Cixin made it amply clear that it is Cheng Xin’s female nature that led to her disastrous decisions,
She didn’t want to be like Luo Ji. She wasn’t a warrior, a duelist; she was a woman…
In Cheng Xin’s subconscious, she was a protector, not a destroyer; she was a woman, not a warrior.
And Mr Liu even had Cheng Xin reflect on her own errors and had her expecting others to shovel the shit she threw at the fan,
In the end, she had committed another grave error.
Twice, she had been placed in a position of authority second only to God, and both times she had pushed the world into the abyss in the name of love. This time, no one could fix her mistake for her.
There is a sexist, binarist and gender essentialist throughline that exist in Mr Liu’s writing. He believes that genders are inevitably tied to certain natures. While this isn’t an exclusively Chinese viewpoint, it has deep roots in Chinese culture. There is this suspicion that gender equality and feminism is a force that erodes the strength of society, and when Chinese women clashes with angry anti-feminist trolls on Chinese social media platforms, the companies running them respond by silencing the women (and not their abusers). It is a society that prizes masculinity over femininity so much that it resulted in so much gendercide that China faces a shortage of women by tens of millions today—a direct result of sex-selective abortions and the recently ended one-child policy.
Even in real life, Mr Liu expresses the idea that siding with compassion (or the heart) is detrimental to the fabric of society. When asked about his stance on the mass internment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, Mr Liu said,
Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty. I know what you are thinking, “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy. If you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.Liu Cixin, in Liu Cixin’s War of the Worlds by Fan Jiayang in the June 24, 2019
You can clearly see that he certainly engenders the uncompromising, hardline, utilitarian thinking that Wade espouses: compassion and human rights are secondary to single-mindedly achieving one’s goal, even if one has to harm innocents to ensure success. In The Dark Forest, Zhang Beihai is similarly ruthless. You got to break a few eggs to make an omelette, and all that. In my mind, I imagine Mr Liu as the sort of person who would punch the air and whoop when Thanos said, “The hardest choices require the strongest wills” in Avengers: Infinity War.
I was impressed by the ideas presented in The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest and for all the faults in the writing, neither of them espouses anything I object to. So, why do I feel compelled to revisit Death’s End which made me roll my eyes over and over again with its regressive ideology that feels so incongruent to the rest of the book?
For all its faults, the book is a still a sweeping vista of ideas I have never encountered before. Like its preceding books, it recalibrated what I consider to be possible in science fiction, science itself, and the cosmos. I think the central (and most interesting) question posed by the novel is something Yang Dong asked herself after she was shown a computational simulation of Earth without life which appears drastically different from the Earth we know, showing how life shaped the environment as much as the environment shaped life:
How much has the universe been changed by life?
Mr Liu posits in this book that our universe, in its infancy, actually began with 10 dimensions instead of the meagre 3 we have access to now. He imagines a scenario in which unimaginably advanced higher dimensional beings had access to technology capable of manipulating—and weaponising—the laws of physics themselves in order to wage war, and the fallout from all that resulted in our lower dimensional universe as the higher dimensions collapsed. Near the end of the book, our Solar System itself was attacked by an object that reduced the solar system to two dimensions, making it only detectable by its gravity—which is the book’s explanation for dark matter (as opposed to our regular baryonic matter). I thought it was clever. Perhaps a physicist can explain to me why it’s actually dumb but I like it.
The book also supposes that our universe should naturally undergo a Big Crunch event where the expansion of our universe eventually reverses itself and collapse back into a singularity, but that is in danger of failing to happen. Why? Because intelligent beings squirreled away so much mass in pocket universes (where they can hide in to survive the end of the universe and migrate to the new one after the next Big Bang) and there isn’t enough mass left for the universe to collapse back on itself, so they are facing the heat death of the universe instead as the universe continues to expand indefinitely.
There is a terrifying, elegant logic to the universe imagined by Liu Cixin in his trilogy of books and it kept me up at night with thoughts of “hunters” prowling the cold “Dark Forest” of the cosmos. It makes a lot of sense, the same way how that aphorism about hard times and strong men makes sense, except reality is seldom so acquiescent to such simple principles.
By the end of the Death’s End, Cheng Xin is again forced to make a hard choice. A group of intelligent beings known only as the Returners implored all residents of mini-universes to return the mass they have borrowed so the universe is able to crunch, to ensure the birth of a new universe after that. Cheng Xin can refuse and continue to subsist in her mini-universe. If the Returners succeed, she can go to the new universe. If they fail, she can continue living the rest of her life comfortably in her mini-universe. Cheng Xin, true to her character, said,
“If everyone in every mini-universe thinks that way,” said Cheng Xin, “then they will have doomed the great universe.”
This right here is what saved the book for me. It is, in my opinion, a vindication of humanity, kindness and altruism over the selfish, survivalist mindset that led to both a Dark Forest situation and the ruination of the universe. In my review of The Dark Forest, I have facetiously called Dark Forest Theory “the prisoner’s dilemma… IN SPACE” and true to that, the ultimate optimal response to such a problem is not hostility but cooperation. I do not know if this is what Mr Liu is ultimately saying, but I am choosing to believe he is. This doesn’t erase the sexist bullshit that he wrote in the rest of this book, but it does make the whole story more palatable for me.
Wade lifted his head and looked at Cheng Xin with rarely seen helplessness and pleading. He spoke slowly. “If we lose our human nature, we lose much, but if we lose our bestial nature, we lose everything.”
“I choose human nature,” Cheng Xin said, looking around at everyone. “I believe you all will, as well.”
Another way of reading this is that different situations requires different approaches. Someone like Cheng Xin is not suited to be a Swordholder when compared to Luo Ji and Wade, but someone as cynical as Luo Ji and Wade may not choose to sacrifice their mini-universe because they do not believe that other intelligent beings will do the same. For that, you need someone who chooses humanity at all cost, even over our biological imperative to survive. I think one can have a conversation about idealism vs. cynicism without bringing stale beliefs about gender into this book at all.
Mr Liu’s Death’s End is a sprawling ambitious book, albeit one that is a weird mix of really out-of-the-box concepts and some really backwards in-the-box ideas about women. However, I have decided that its virtues overwhelmingly recommends it over its faults. It is a book with a dizzying scope that spans from beyond space and time to the depths of human nature. Come for the interstellar politics and conflicts, stay for the human drama.