Sunday 25 June 2017

Death’s End - Book Club Review

This is our third review of Hugo Nominated novels in 2017. The previous reviews were Closed and Common Orbit and The Obelisk Gate.

It would be difficult for any sequel to live up to Cixin Liu’s Hugo-Winning The Three Body Problem. The immediate sequel, The Dark Forest was an uneven and flawed book that had some merit. But the much-heralded conclusion of the trilogy, Death’s End, completely misses the mark.

At least the cover art is pretty cool.
(Image via 
The plot is meandering and unfocused. Protagonist Cheng Xin is first introduced as an engineering student and object of desire, and later as the swordbearer — a person tasked with protecting humanity through mutual deterrence — but then becomes a time traveller observing various eras of civilization as humanity faces one massive world-ending crisis after another.

The End Is Nigh Again

One of the recurring themes in “big” science fiction is the impending end of the world. In Death’s End, the end of the world is nigh on no fewer than six occasions, only to be averted suddenly through deux et machina each time.  The frequency of these calamities within the book, and how precipitously they are forgotten devalues them, and left our book group struggling to care.

The character of Cheng Xin is one of the weakest parts of the book, as none of us were really able to understand her motivations or her personality. She’s faced with conflict after conflict throughout the book, and presented with a wide variety of moral dilemmas, but through it all she remains a cypher.

In the previous two books the author wrote from several points of view other than the main character.
Cixin Liu is China's most
popular SF author.
(Image via
Death’s End focuses almost solely on Cheng Xin, with just a brief portion from Tianming’s perspective. This leaves other interesting characters — like Luo Ji and Wade — on the sidelines. The omission of their perspectives is a missed opportunity that points to the lack of depth in the book.

Everything And The Kitchen Sink

Characters, however, do not seem to be what Liu is interested in as an author. He is a writer who likes to tackle ‘big ideas,’ and this book is jammed full of ‘big’ science fictional ideas: the weaponization of space-time geometry; societally determined gender selection; interstellar mutual deterrence; manipulating the speed of light; and the inevitable heat death of the universe.

If Liu had focused on one of these ideas instead of jumping from one to the next, the book might have been stronger. Both concepts and plot elements are suddenly dropped and never mentioned again. A whole chapter is dedicated to a black hole, which turns out to be entirely irrelevant. Human civilization is on the brink of war, but Cheng Xin miraculously stops the war in less than a page, at which point it becomes irrelevant.

Men Are From Mars Or Wherever

Some of us were troubled by the sexist assumptions that underpin portions of Death’s End’s plot. During a peaceful era that Cheng Xin explores, men are 'feminized' and indistinguishable from women, because according to the author, men are only needed for conflict. It’s an attitude that is demeaning to women, because it’s suggested they cannot deal with conflicts without men, and it’s demeaning to men because it suggests that all they are good for is fighting.

Because the book lacks any focus, and because Liu’s ideas are never fully explored, Death’s End ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The scattered plot, the scant development of these ideas, and the lack of human characters make this an unworthy nominee. Two years ago, most of our group voted for The Three Body Problem. This year, none of us are likely to rank Death’s End very high on our Hugo Ballot.

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