No banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything.
The final book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past picks up where the second book left off. The Trisolaran army has been stopped, and humanity is now safe. Of course “safe” translates here to “holding off an attack from a technologically superior alien race by keeping one finger on the button of a doomsday device, forever.” I wonder how long humanity can keep that up.
This is it, the culmination of everything that Cixin Liu has been leading up to in the first two books. The Three Body Problem featured an alien civilization and theoretical physics. The Dark Forest involved political machinations and high-tech space battles. Death’s End goes beyond both of them and still manages to be like a fairytale. With physics. And politics. And space battles. And a shockingly high number of casualties.
No spoilers for this book, but I’ll need to spoil a little of the previous one.
The dark forest deterrence created at the end of the last book is dazzlingly simple. Luo Ji was able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are civilizations in the universe even stronger than the Trisolarans, and they’ve been able to survive long enough to get that way by instantly destroying – from a distance and without any attempt to communicate – any other civilization they discover. If the Trisolaran army stops their attack on Earth, removes the sophons that are keeping Earth’s scientists from performing high-end physics experiments, and shares all of Trisolaran technology with humanity, humanity in return promises to keep very quiet and not broadcast to the rest of the universe exactly where we are.
The problem with peace through mutually-assured destruction is that Trisolaris has the ability to attack and shut down any broadcast methods very quickly, so whoever has their finger on the button will have to press it at a moment’s notice, and the Trisolarans have to know that that person is willing to go through with it. Trying to find the right person for such a nightmarish job takes up a good part of the book.
Several of Cixin Liu’s brilliantly complicated characters circle around this problem, most especially Cheng Xin, a scientist from our era who has her own reasons for going into hibernation and waking up sixty years after the dark forest deterrence started. Then there’s Yun Tianming, a scientist dying of cancer in the current era (and who chooses to go out with the most romantic gesture in the history of humanity), and Sophon who’s a beautiful (and surprisingly bad-ass) agent/construct of the Trisolarans. There’s also Luo Ji who cannot catch a break in any time period, Cheng Xin’s friend AA (unbelievably, beautifully clever AA, I can’t believe I thought you were just a pretty face), and the leader of something called The Staircase Program, Thomas Wade (ah Wade, you incredible bastard, I understand you even less than I understand most of the science in this book). And of course there’s the crew members of Bronze Age and Blue Space who decided to flee the solar system in the last book and made sure they had enough supplies and (shudder) food by slaughtering the entire crew of their fellow ship, Quantum. You didn’t think everyone was going to just let that one go, did you?
The novel jumps hundreds of years in the first few chapters (and then much, much further after that), and the reader is kept from falling too far behind by having characters from each different time-period hibernate for decades, so we’d have someone that the people in the future era can explain things to. Because things change a lot in the intervening years.
One thing that doesn’t change is humanity’s ability to change their flippin’ minds over and over to fit circumstances. Whatever needs to be decided in order for the human race to survive, some unlucky person (generally the last one you’ll think is qualified) will be picked to make the decision, and everyone will eventually hate them, either because it didn’t work or because it did work and no one is comfortable with the method. Luo Ji catches a lot of this, and it’s always infuriating, mostly because it feels like how people would actually react.
It’s hard to review this book in detail because one revelation leads to another and I don’t want to give too much away. The author has an astounding ability to explain complicated scientific theories, and then work them into the plot, giving the reader a chilling moment when it becomes clear what that scientific theory actually means for the characters. Plus, there are just too many gorgeous images to describe here: a journey through a space elevator, a civilization living in twenty or so larger-than-world ships, a near-miss fly-by of one of Jupiter’s moons seen from the outside of a spaceship, and even a series of tiny landscaped courtyards aboard a spaceship.
Each courtyard displayed a different natural scene: a green lawn with a babbling brook running through the grass; a small copse with a spring in the middle; a beach with waves of clear water throwing up surf…These scenes were small but exquisite, like a string of pearls made of the best parts of Earth.
The pacing of the story will take some getting used to, because the author constantly jumps from the macro to the micro. There are many many information dumps of complicated theories and summaries of what’s been going on while a character was in hibernation, but there are also moments of drama and romance, with shockingly powerful, quiet moments: a tea ceremony for instance, or the countdown to a convenient death. Those are then followed by scenes of thousands being herded into continent-sized prisons or being wiped out with methods that make my brain hurt just thinking about them. Cixin Liu loves to build stories out of hypothetical questions and play with complicated ideas like black holes and different dimensions, and the results are equal parts beautiful and horrifying.
This book takes a lot of work to read; sometimes the leaps of logic come out of absolutely nowhere. There were many sections where the author came back around to explain things and I still didn’t understand afterward. That said, I finished this one in half the time it took me to read each of the other two. It’s a hell of adventure, the book is filled with people making the most difficult decisions in the universe, and all of the choices are guaranteed to be wrong. You keep thinking that you’ve reached the largest scale of the story, and then it jumps to the next level and you realize how small the original picture was.
The last sentence of the book ends with a beautiful image like a tiny poem, and you won’t be sure if you feel despair at how far people (not just humans) will go just to survive, or a sense of triumph for the exact same reason, but by God you’ll definitely feel something.
I’m still angry at all the times Cixin Liu yanked the rug out from under me at the point where it would hurt the most, but I was also delighted to hear that a movie of the first book in the trilogy is set to come out in 2017. No idea how the movie creators are going to get all the convoluted science into a film without making it nine hours long, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing them try.