Thursday, November 3, 2016

Book Review: Death's End

Death's End
Cixin Liu (author), Ken Liu (translator)
Science fiction

Death's End is the third in an ambitious SF trilogy originally written and published in China. The first, The Three-Body Problem, won a Hugo Award; I generally concurred. The second, The Dark Forest, was less successful; I ultimately found it worthwhile, with reservations. Death's End, regrettably, has all of the drawbacks and few of the virtues of The Dark Forest.

Some of the drawbacks may be cultural. It's clear that readers' expectations differ widely across the world. In English fiction, for example, there's the famous shibboleth "show, don't tell." Like all hard-and-fast rules it's often overblown, but it's still there: it's part of the expectation. This expectation is blatantly violated in all three of Liu's books, and The Dark Forest is perhaps the worst of the three.

Similarly, I have strong reservations about (for example) a chapter that consists of twelve pages of dense descriptive text with a single lonely line of dialogue--or, strictly speaking, monologue--on page three. It's jarring at best and absurd at worst. 

It's especially absurd when Liu spends his word count describing large-scale social changes which have no effect on the actual plot. For example: at one point, we're told that there's a large-scale religious revival--so much so that a giant illuminated cross is placed in orbit. About a quarter-inch of book (and some years of timeline) later, we're told that the revival has faded and they're dismantling the cross. That's all we hear about the matter. 

The biggest problem by far, however, is characterization. One of three things is going on:
  • People in China are just extraordinarily unlike Americans. (Unlikely. I've had many co-workers from China. They're people.)
  • Cixin Liu is a very very strange man with very very strange ideas about people. (Possible.)
  • The conventions of fiction are incompatible.
In Liu's world, people don't have recognizable human motivations--or, if they do, they're only peripheral. Instead, they act in ways that appear to be more symbolic/stylized than anything. For instance, does this paraphrase sound like a reasonable proposition to you?
Character 1: Hey, how about you give me all your money and everything you've built up and basically your entire life, and go into hibernation for a while. Do it for the sake of the human spirit. 

Character 2: Okay! Sounds like a plan!
That's a nice compact example, but it's far from the weirdest one.

Now, none of this is without parallel in the English-speaking SF world. The largely-unread classics of Olaf Stapledon are one example. More recently, I'd cite the inexplicably popular Stephen Baxter, whose books are all basically travelogues. If you like either of these guys, particularly Baxter, go ahead and read Death's End. (It's not a slog, for what that's worth. I was, much of the time, eager to find out what happened next.) Otherwise, I'd only recommend this to readers who liked both of the first two books and want to know how it all turns out.


  1. I have studied a smidgen of Chinese literature. Really quite little, and 25 years ago. I was on a study abroad program in Taiwan in '89-90, in which I picked up a minor fluency in the language. I learned about as much as you imagine a Chinese exchange student might learn about the collective and exhaustive works of English literature might, in a year, never having read in English before.Still, I was exposed to a bunch of history, some of which was up front and personal.

    Only two years earlier, Taiwan was still ruled by martial law. Remember, mainland China and Taiwan both lay claim to being the legitimate government in all of China.

    Life was very very different in China, compared to the way it is now. Remember, Tienanmen was 1989, the year I went to Taiwan. The Berlin wall came down a year later. HK and Macau were both still British colonies. The Cultural Revolution was only dead about 15 years. Back then. So that makes only 40 years now.

    At the time, I read a very famous novel called Luotuo Xiangzi by Lao She. In English, Rickshaw Boy, or more literally Camel Xiangzi, where Xiangzi is the main character's name.

    As an aside, the given name I used in China was Xiang, from this novel. The "ng" is quiet, so it sounds like like Shan*g, a little like Sean. I also still use it in Japanese calligraphy, the first of two characters, it is pronounces "sho." The second is "un," the "u" is pronounce as in "pull." Together they are Shoun, or Sean.

    Anyway, it was a slog to read. It was written in the 30's, pre-communism, but kind of appealed to some communist sympathies. Hard work, the cruelties of economics. I read it in English, but it was still like pulling teeth. And it was written in the vernacular, which should have made it easier.

    Note that Chinese vernacular is kind of like European vernacular. There are as many major languages in China as there are in Europe. Mandarin (of course), with its subdialects spoken in Sichan, Yunnan, Hubei, and others. Think if it like Spanish vs. Italian. You kind of get it, but might lose something in translation. Then, there is Cantonese in Canton and HK, Min-nan in Fujian and Taiwan, and Shangainese, among many others. And those languages are very very different. You can't just try hard and hope to understand it.

    Much of literary Chinese pre-twentieth century was written in classical Chinese, which is almost a different language. Imagine speaking English, but only writing in Latin, where the Latin words are also in English, but often with different meanings due to linguistic drift. Imagine very little was ever written, even newspapers, in vernacular English until the 1920s. Also, everything written by the Gemans, French, Spanish, Italians, and Romanians, among others, was also written in Latin. Then, English was written in vernacular, until a couple of years later, when the Spanish said, hey, I like Spanish vernacular better than English.

    Then, add the communist revolution post WW2, which strongly influenced literature. Some might say it smothered literature, since at minimum it limited the acceptable subject matter. Then introduce the Cultural Revolution, which doubled down on that even more. Some would argue that vernacular literature came to a stop. If you haven't read about the Cultural Revolution, you should. I don't have a proper book to recommend, but I will look into it. Really, it is amazing to think that this kind of stuff was happening in our lifetimes.

    So, writing in colloquial, vernacular Chinese- post Cultural Revolution- really only started forty years ago. I suspect- though I am very very far removed from the Chinese literary world- that literature, writ large, is still finding its feet. The point you make about "show, don't tell" may well not be an entrenched expectation. The ideas themselves are what is probably driving the popularity of the books.

    1. ran out of space...

      I read one popular novel in Japanese, by a very popular author. By popular, I mean the author was a household name. Kind of like "the collected works of Jacqueline Susann. The novels of Harold Robbins...Ah, the "Giants". His name is Jiro Akagawa. The novel was Mishiranuko, or the Child I Never Knew. It was a slog to get through, as well. It broke all the rules, was trite, and had sentences that would go on for a page, with a dozen verbs (I exaggerate for effect). In Japanese, you can have run-on sentences. You don't have to have a paragraph that states what you are talking about, talks about it, and then finishes. My point is this, the rules ain't the same. That's ok.

      Only, it doesn't make it as interesting for a foreign reader of the literature. We have our conventions. We have our rules. And if our literature, in translation or otherwise, doesn't meet those expectations then it won't do well.

      What I find interesting is that the first of the series by Cixin Liu, which I have not read, seems to meet the criteria, while the two sequels do not. I wonder why the author didn't continue that way.

      I wonder what an actual, honest-to-goodness literary scholar would say.

    2. Thanks for the awesome long posts!

      The Three-Body Problem (the first book) is set, in part, during the Cultural Revolution. That was one of the things I liked most about it: it was showing an alien society here on earth. As I think I said when I reviewed it, it still violates some of those rules. But it's a complete story with a plot and characters who are more-or-less identifiable-with and some really cool ideas. (Hence the Hugo award, I suppose.) The rule-breaking was both off-putting and interesting in that context. Here, it was just off-putting.

    3. Yeah, I really went off there a little bit. I think I had something to say.

      Do you still have The Three Body Problem? I'd love to borrow it. If not then I'll take a trip to the Barnes and Noble.

    4. You did have something to say. And I really do appreciate it; for once I was not being sarcastic.

      I borrowed The Three-Body Problem from the library, so I can't lend it. I do hope you'll read it and let us know what you think.