Your mind will be blown, flattened, and then collapsed to a zero-dimensional point in Death’s End, the epic finale of Cixin Liu’s hard sci-fi trilogy, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past.
Ken Liu is back as translator, bringing the same level of proficiency and eloquence to his translation of Death’s End as with the first volume of the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem. This is a welcome return to form after the rather awkwardly translated middle book, The Dark Forest.
As in The Three-Body Problem, Death’s End features a strong female protagonist. The Three-Body Problem tells the story of Ye Wenjie, an ingenious physicist who is persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and becomes the first scientist to initiate contact with the Trisolaran alien civilization. Death’s End introduces us to Cheng Xin, a brilliant aerospace engineer who works as part of the Staircase Project to send a human into space to serve as a diplomat for meeting with the Trisolaran fleet. Having an inspirational female lead such as Cheng Xin is another welcome change from The Dark Forest, which focused on the rather uninspiring Luo Ji as its lead character.
In The Dark Forest, Luo ultimately overcomes his unambitious nature to develop a Cold War-style system of mutually assured destruction, forming a fragile peace between the humans and Trisolarans. With his finger on the button of mass annihilation, Luo Ji becomes known as the Swordholder, a “chosen one”-type position that later passes on to Cheng Xin. However, the Trisolarans are not convinced that Cheng Xin would actually follow through on the threat of mutual destruction.
Death’s End is, by far, the most epic volume of The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, spanning hundreds of years across multiple eras of existence. As the plot progresses, the scope of Death’s End keeps expanding, from the world to the solar system, finally culminating in a grand inter-galactic drama where the fate of the entire universe is in jeopardy. The buildup of the story is highly satisfying and emotional, especially in the last third of the book.
Death’s End is full of imaginative and awe-inspiring ideas, most of which work effectively to drive the narrative forward. However, there are also a number of plot contrivances, such as the sudden appearance of a sophon-free room, enabling the humans to converse without fear of being intercepted by these intelligent Trisolaran-created subatomic particles. The ability to communicate without detection by the Trisolarans is a key part of the plot, but there is no attempt to explain how this sophon-free room came into existence.
Death’s End works best when it focuses on Cheng Xin and the great cast of supporting characters. I really enjoyed the relationship between Cheng and her former university classmate, Yun Tianming, as well as the friendship that blossoms between Cheng and her equally brilliant companion, the astronomer Ai AA. The cigar-smoking former CIA director, Thomas Wade, is a great foil for Cheng, embodying the corruption and individualism of Western capitalism. Another favorite character is Sophon, an android diplomat who is controlled by the sophon particles and serves as a communication link between the humans and Trisolarans.
While the character-focused text is highly engaging, the writing in Death’s End becomes less compelling in the many passages that are written in the dry style of history book excerpts. In these passages, Cixin Liu falls into the trap of telling, rather than showing, the reader about key plot events.
There are also three fairy tales which must be deciphered to understand three key secrets of the universe to aid in human survival. The idea of encoding scientific concepts into fairy tales is quite intriguing. However, I was rather annoyed by the self-congratulatory way that Cixin Liu presented these tales. At one point, Cixin Liu uses one of his characters as a mouthpiece to compliment his own writing: “I want to express my respect for the author. As fairy tales, these are very good.”
As a whole, The Remembrance of Earth’s Past is full of brilliant, mind-warping ideas from quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory, and evolutionary biology. However, across the trilogy, Cixin Liu has established a somewhat uneven record of conveying these ideas to the reader. Cixin Liu’s writing works best when he combines the personal with the galactic, where the scientific advances lead to a better understanding of universal truths of what it means to be human, or more generally, what it means to be an intelligent being. Death’s End is, in many ways, a testament to our aspirations and accomplishments as human beings, and our ability to overcome the limitations of our finite intelligence.