Like Book 1 of Cixin Liu’s towering The Three-Body Problem series, Book 3 begins with a siege.
But while the first book opened in 1967 (during China’s Cultural Revolution), the third book—Death’s End—flashes back to 1453 (during the Ottomans’ assault on Constantinople). It’s a bit disconcerting given that the second book left off in 2213.
The chronological zigzag makes sense given where the middle entry in the series concluded, however. Book 2 seemingly resolved the central conflict: Earth, threatened with invasion by aliens from Trisolaris, stumbled upon a form of deterrence relying on mutually assured destruction (not unlike the nuclear détente of the Cold War). The Trisolarans conceded defeat and changed course; humanity’s future looked secure.
So without a cliffhanger to contend with—as most Book 2s bequeath to Book 3s—why not rewind a few centuries?
Liu uses the opportunity to inject a bit of fantasy into his science fiction: an assassin who can remove her targets’ organs without touching them. Then he returns to the early days of the Trisolaris crisis and introduces a few more new characters. He also backfills some plot devices before finally advancing the narrative past the epilogue of Book 2.
In other words, the story takes a while to get going. But the preamble has a purpose, and it becomes clear as the “Deterrence Era” devolves into something far less stable.
The result is extraordinary.
I still never quite connected with the characters. Liu features a different protagonist in each book, and although Cheng Xin, the lead for Death’s End, is the most sympathetic, I always felt a little distant from her.
That may have been by design. “I am but an ordinary person,” she says at one point. “Unfortunately, I have not been able to walk the ordinary person’s path. My path is, in reality, the journey of a civilization.” Liu seems to have conceived of her as an avatar for humanity—or at least a facet of it, while other characters often represent our baser instincts.
This scale is what impressed me most by the close of Death’s End. The series spans eons; the date for one of the last chapters is “About Seventeen Billion Years After the Beginning of Time.” Along the way, we see human culture evolve, Trisolaran culture adapt to human culture, and new civilizations enter (and exit) the galactic playing field.
Liu also shows us more mind-bending science: Lightspeed travel. Black-hole shields. A “Great Wall at the scale of the universe.” Life in four dimensions. Death in two.
Some of this is cloaked in clever fantasy (like the assassin’s trick in 15th-century Constantinople). Other aspects are laid out in interstitial passages from A Past Outside of Time, a fake history Liu uses to bridge the time jumps and provide necessary context for a story with such a massive scope. Just about all of it worked for me by the end.
In his translator’s note, Ken Liu (another fabulous author) writes, “I continue to be awed by the genius of [Cixin Liu] every time I read another passage from this novel. Of the three books in the trilogy, this third one is my favorite.”
I felt the same way. The Three-Body Problem series wasn’t a quick read for me, but I won’t forget it anytime soon. What an achievement.
Note: Since the translation uses the English versions of the author’s name and his characters’, I did the same in this review. For more like it, sign up for my monthly newsletter.