Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

Mental-floss on a grand scale – Death’s End by Cixin Liu

It has been said that many authors seems to be unable to grasp or describe how big outer space is. So it takes a bold and visionary Science Fiction (SF) writer – and I mean “visionary” in the sense of being able to come up with a vision of a setting in outer space – to describe space in both scientifically acceptable and literarily pleasing ways. Some writers gloss over the whole thing – it’s just “big”, “enormous”, or “there”. Others try to think beyond the usual ways of describing it. So, how big is it? And does LIU Cixin get it right in his sweeping epic of a space opera novel, Death’s End?

“For example, consider that a light year is on the order of 10 quadrillion metres (10 petametres) or nearly six trillion miles. Let’s assume your family car uses about 2 and a half gallons (11.37 litres) of fuel per 100 km – about 25 mpg – and a gallon (2.55 litres) costs about $4 USD (i.e. 1.6 USD/1 Euro per litre) to traverse it. This means that one light year is roughly where you’d end up if you spent the entire national debt of the US on petroleum fuel.”

Death’s End, by Liu Cixin (publisher: Tor Books – Tom Doherty Associates, September 20, 2016, translated by Ken LIU). Originally published as  死神永生 in 2010 by Chongqing Publishing Group in Chongqing, China. “Half a century after the Doomsday Battle, the uneasy balance of Dark Forest Deterrence keeps the Trisolaran invaders at bay. Earth enjoys unprecedented prosperity due to the infusion of Trisolaran knowledge. Cheng Xin, an aerospace engineer from the early twenty-first century, awakens from hibernation in this new age.” (Publisher’s text from front jacket flap)

A way of explaining the scale of the universe is to use fermi style estimation to the nearest powers of ten. The solar system is about a million times the width of the Earth while the Milky Way galaxy is a 100 million times the width of the solar system, and the observable universe is a million times the width of the Milky Way. The size of the universe beyond that is speculation, though the observable universe may be but a speck in the larger universe, assuming it’s not infinite.” (Extracts from Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale)

Some authors just take the problem of the scale of space with a pinch of salt:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” (Extract from the text of the “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”, from the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams)

“Space. It seems to go on and on forever. Then you get to the end, and a monkey starts throwing barrels at you.” (Character “Phillip J. Fry”, in Futurama by Matt Groening and David X. Cohen)

OK. So, it’s big. Apparently, the scientists who torture themselves by critically reading Science Fiction, also find that many SF writers have no sense of distance in space, and also get the basics wrong of time, mass and size, energy, and velocity.

The question is, how factually or scientifically correct does fiction have to be, in order for it to be convincing and readable? What distinguishes non-fiction from fiction is the leaps of imagination of the author. And what makes it enjoyable for the reader is the strength of conceptualization of the ideas that the author puts forth, and how he or she engages the reader with those ideas, through language, characterization, setting and plot. By definition, fiction does not have to be truth, but sticking to the basics of how the world works helps to make it understandable for the reader. It gives them a cement pole to hang on to in the choppy sea waters of the story, so to speak.

Liu’s Hard Science Fiction

Where does that leave Death’s End by LIU Cixin (simplified Chinese: 刘慈欣; traditional Chinese: 劉慈欣)? In the first place, it’s a lengthy 608 pages. (It’s the third part of Liu’s trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, which includes The Three-Body Problem (2016, 316 pp.) and The Dark Forest (2008, 400 pp.) It’s a lot of text to wade through. The novel is shortlisted for a Hugo Award at this year’s WorldCon 75 at Helsinki. Liu’s SF is considered Hard Science Fiction, because of its scientific accuracy. As with many novels where the author has a distinctly factual approach to the narrative, which does lend itself to more detail and thus greater length, Liu’s novel reads like a Sociology or History handbook. In the preface, one of the characters, a not very brilliant but well-intentioned scientist called “Yun Tianming” is quoted:

“I suppose this ought to be called history; but since all I can rely on is my memory, it lacks the rigor of history. It’s not even accurate to call it the past, for the events related in these pages didn’t occur in the past, aren’t taking place now, and will not happen in the future.”  (from Death’s End)

The character – therefore Liu’s – words almost explains the nature of the novel, the sense that one is reading a report of the impact of inter-planetary contact on the human race, on earth’s science, societies, religions, history, politics and economy. Liu doesn’t deal with just one nation, like many writers do, for instance casting Americans as heroes that save the entire world. A few of his main characters, for instance Yun Tianming and “Cheng Xin”, the so-called “Swordholder”, might be Chinese, but the rest are from all over the world, and in any case, by about the middle of the book, both gender and nationality have become superfluous in humans. In fact, even physical bodies have become irrelevant.

Liu’s sentences are declamatory, his style almost lecturing. But he does have an awful lot of future history to get through – including the destruction of another race, the “Trisolarans”, and the near-destruction of the human race. Liu doesn’t write in days, or years. He writes in millennia, eras, centuries and many, many light years, like so:
Common Era: Present–201X C.E.
Crisis Era: 201X–2208
Deterrence Era: 2208–2270
Post-Deterrence Era: 2270–2272
Broadcast Era: 2272–2332
Bunker Era: 2333–2400
Galaxy Era: 2273–unknown
Black Domain Era for DX3906 System: 2687–18906416
Timeline for Universe 647: 18906416 –….

He doesn’t write about one engagement of the human race with another race from elsewhere in the galaxy, but about humans engaging with many other species from many other galaxies. He envisions space as not in three dimensions but in four (and it gets seriously weird at that point.) He takes what we do know about space, and conceptualizes it a couple of quantum mental leaps beyond that. It reminded me of The Tale of Genji (early 11th century Japanese novel, 1216 pp. in paperback) by Murasaki Shikibu, in terms of the length, the level of detail and the historical scale, and also Liu’s ability to nevertheless maintain internal consistency.

What does that do for the reader?

It must be said that translator Ken Liu (another Liu) did an excellent job of recreating this novel in English. I think that due to the differences between Chinese and English, both semantically and stylistically, this was much more than a translation – it was a recreation and a very important one at that, which had to stay in line with the previous two novels in the series. “Liu says that a national Chinese obsession with sci-fi began around 1983. ‘Some of the works even sold as many as four million copies. There were even debates on whether sci-fi ought to belong to the domain of science or of literature; Chinese authors made effort to pull it back to its literary origin, attempting to change the way that sci-fi had been treated as a mere tool for disseminating scientific knowledge.’” (‘People hope my book will be China’s Star Wars’: Liu Cixin on China’s exploding sci-fi scene, by David Barnett, 14 December 2016, The Guardian, rtrvd. 2017-07-07)

It is not hard to read, because of Liu Cixin’s explanations and very carefully thought-out scenarios (typical approach: when this happens, then that occurs, because of this, which is followed by that, and in case you thought what about that person, then he or she reacts like so…etc., etc.) He states matters so bluntly and matter-of-factly that it sounds highly convincing, and I think he would make an awfully good Spin Doctor in a second career.

The suspense is not so much in the incidents as in the whole novel, start to finish, since every event in it is massively extreme and inherently dramatic. The Trisolarans do not just invade Earth, they force the entire human species to either go live on part of Mars or in Australia. (Poor Australia.) The Trisolaran planet does not just get a few meteoroid hits – it gets a pinpoint attack that blows it out of the galaxy. To give the events in the novel a sense of perspective, Liu explains it like this:

“The Trisolar Crisis’s impact on society was far deeper than people had imagined at first. To give some imperfect analogies: In terms of biology, it was equivalent to the moment when the ancestors of mammals climbed from the ocean onto land; in terms of religion, it was akin to when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden; in terms of history and sociology . . . there are no suitable analogies, even imperfect ones. Compared to the Trisolar Crisis, every thing heretofore experienced by human civilization was nothing.” (from Death’s End)

Of the many concepts of outer and future space that Liu introduces, three stood out for me: the “[Space] Staircase Program”, the “Fourth Dimension”, and the “re-embodiment of Tianming’s brain”.

1. Staircase Program

“The most promising resource at our disposal is the stockpile of nuclear weapons from around the world. Without some technical breakthrough, these represent the most powerful sources of energy we can launch into space. Imagine a spaceship or probe equipped with a radiation sail, similar to a solar sail: a thin film capable of being propelled by radiation. If we set off nuclear bombs behind the sail periodically—”[…] “The bombs will not be on the ship,” Cheng Xin replied calmly. The laughter ceased abruptly; it was as if she had put her hand on the surface of a struck cymbal. “The probe itself will be a tiny core equipped with sensors attached to a large sail, but the total mass will be light as a feather. It will be easy to propel it with the radiation from extravehicular nuclear detonations.” Cheng Xin retrieved a stack of paper cups from the drinking water dispenser behind her and laid them out on the conference table in a line. “We can use traditional chemical rockets to launch the nuclear bombs in advance, and dis tribute them along the first segment of the probe’s route.” She took a pencil and moved its tip along the line, from one cup to the next. “As the probe passes each bomb, we detonate it right behind the sail, accelerating it faster and faster.”  (from Death’s End)

It sounds like pure imagination, but it is not so inconceivable if you know that a similar idea, the “space elevator”,  which is also introduced in the novel, has been around for a long time. The International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC) has the mission to promote space elevator development. Here is a 2017 paper that ISEC produced on the history of the space elevator concept: Space-Elevators-A-History-31Mar2017.

“For those who may be unfamiliar with the concept of a space elevator, it is precisely as its name implies; a ground terminal on the Earth’s surface tied to a space station by an enormously long tether or cable on which climber cars could deliver crew and cargo to space. The orbital element would be located at roughly 36,000km above the equator, or, in other words, geostationary orbit (GEO). As its name suggests, anything placed in this type of orbit remains perfectly in step with the Earth’s rotation, maintaining a fixed position relative to a point on the planet’s surface.” (Space-Elevators-A-History-31Mar2017)

This is exactly the space elevator which Liu describes as the transport mechanism which Cheng Xin uses to reach a meeting with Yun Tianming, hundreds of years after the Stairway Program. It is another example why his work is classified as Hard SF.

2. Fourth Dimension

Liu’s depiction of the fourth dimension really impressed me, considering that it is almost impossible to describe, at least in the words that we have for it at the moment, which barely covers terms understandable by plebs – me for one.

Animation of a transforming tesseract or 4-cube
This object is the 4D equivalent of a cube, known as a tesseract. By JasonHise at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, rtrvd. 2017-07-08

A popular philosophical, rather than mathematical, paper on the fourth dimension was published in 1884 (yes, 1884, not 1994), which shows how long this debate has been going on.  On the assumption that multiple universes exist, as in this novel, a fourth dimension is possible since in multiverses, the known parameters of physics no longer apply. In physics, three dimensions of space and one of time is the accepted norm (a line describing one dimension, a plane describing two dimensions, and a cube describing three dimensions). However, it is easier to theorize about the fourth dimension and even to illustrate it, than to describe how it feels to be in it. Liu acknowledges the limitations of the human mind to grasp being in a fourth dimension.

“In other words, the vastness that one experienced in three-dimensional space was but a cross-section of the vastness of four-dimensional space. The difficulty of describing high-dimensional spatial sense lay in the fact that for observers situated in four-dimensional space, the space they could see was empty and uniform, but there was a depth to it that could not be captured by language. This depth was not a matter of distance: It was bound up in every point in space. Guan Yifan’s exclamation later became a classic quote: ‘A bottomless abyss exists in every inch.’” (from Death’s End)

In this strange situation, the astronauts encounter a dead ship, and the AI in it says to them: “When the sea is drying, the fish have to gather into a puddle. The puddle is also drying, and all the fish are going to disappear.” This is a phrase that Liu also uses in The Three-Body Problem.  Only if you work through the previous two novels will you be able to grasp the significance of the words.

3. Re-embodiment of Tianming’s brain

To get to the meeting with the man who had bought her a star, Cheng Xin travels to a sphere at a Lagrangian point in space, “…the distance between the elevator’s terminal station and the Lagrangian point being about 1.5 million kilometers, or one hundredth of an astronomical unit”. Again, back to the science behind the idea: A “Lagrange point” is a location in space where the combined gravitational forces of two large bodies, such as Earth and the sun or Earth and the moon, equal the centrifugal force felt by a much smaller third body.

“Cheng Xin had entertained countless guesses as to what she would see. Maybe she would only have voice and text; maybe she would see a brain floating in nutrient fluid; maybe she would see Yun Tianming whole. Though she believed that this last possibility was practically impossible, she tried to imagine the environment Tianming would be living in. She thought of innumerable scenarios, but none was like what she actually saw. A golden field of wheat bathed in sunlight.” (from Death’s End)

This takes the reader back to the opening words of the book, when Yun Tianming speaks, which is written in first person voice – the only time this happens in the novel:

“I move the sun to the west, and as the angle of the light shifts, the dewdrops on the seedlings in the field glisten like countless eyes suddenly popping open. I dim the sun so that dusk arrives earlier; then I stare at the silhouette of myself on the distant horizon, in front of the setting sun. I wave at the silhouette; the silhouette waves back. Looking at the shadow of myself, I feel young again. This is a lovely time, just right for remembering.”  (from Death’s End)

Romance and fairy tales – the human connection

So, the most philosophical, emotional and human moments of the novel are those between the two protagonists, Cheng Xin and Yun Tianming. For all the science and technology in it, the grand scope and epic scale of the narrative, the pivotal moments are just those between two old friends who were never even lovers. In other words, Liu connects with his readers through romance and – unexpectedly – fairy tales.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the novel starts with the rather inept Science student, Yun Tianming, and his unrequited love for the brilliant and beautiful Cheng Xin, his fellow student. He loves her so much he is willing to die in outer space for the sake of making her project, the Staircase Program, succeed. Earth needs to “…send a representative of humanity into the heart of the enemy”, and Tianming is willing to become that sacrifice. In the end, only his brain makes it.

But before he does, he makes a romantic gesture:

“Tianming knew that he didn’t exactly look healthy. But after stopping chemo—which had been like undergoing torture—he felt much better, almost as if he’d gotten a new lease on life. Ignoring Dr. He’s question, he repeated the request he had already made on the phone. ‘I want to buy a star as a gift. The title to the star should be registered under the name of the recipient. I won’t provide any personal information about myself, and I want my identity kept secret from her.’ ‘No problem at all. Do you have an idea of what kind of star you want to buy?’ ‘As close to Earth as possible. One with planets. Ideally, Earthlike planets,’ Tianming said as he gazed at the star map.”  (from Death’s End)

This resonated with me. In the 1980s, so-called star registries sprung up, and I thought it a suitably poetic gesture to have some invisible speck that had long since ceased to exist named, in Latin, after my boyfriend of the time. I got a pretty purple and gold certificate and the long number of the star I had bought a name for, not realizing that the whole thing was hokum. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) actually designates stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and other heavenly bodies according to internationally accepted rules. The IAU does not sell names for heavenly bodies  – nor can they, or anyone else, sell a heavenly body. If only I’d read the small print. But, I understand why this idea is so romantic. Wouldn’t we all like to gaze at a twinkly star and know that it is ours, in a way? Whether, and how, the star-crossed lovers, pardon the pun, ever get together, I’ll leave the reader to find out. But that sub-plot is charmingly, if soppily, romantic.


  • Absolutely Hard Science Fiction
  • Long but even and cohesive
  • Interesting futuristic concepts
  • Romance and fairy tales introduced as mechanisms to connect with readers
  • Businesslike, formal writing style
  • Epic scale and scope – reads like a history or sociological work
  • No overt message or attempt to manipulate readers’ thinking or emotions
  • Not funny or light at all

Liu introduces three fairy tales into his frame narrative, and, like the one character remarks, they are lovely fairy tales. They are called “The New Royal Painter”, “The Glutton’s Sea”, and  “Prince Deep Water”. They are in the style of classical Chinese fairy tales, complete with princes, a princess and kingdoms, monsters and magic and missions, but in the main narrative Liu uses them as mechanisms to introduce ideas for the defence of humanity.

Fortunately, Liu does not make the mistake, like many authors do, of getting lost in the sub-stories and creating quotes within quotes within quotes, and forgetting to stick to the voices of the characters. Here, he avoids this confusion by emphasizing that the characters who are narrating and recalling the stories make a particular effort to remember them word for word, and subsequently the scientists analyze and revisit every word as well. And, while they are complicated, the words of the fairy tale characters stay reasonably simple and do not introduce other sub-stories.


This is a magnum opus, the third in a series of magna opera. How Liu managed to hold it together I do not know – it is quite a feat. It is not particularly sweat-inducing or sniffle-generating. I would say the overall tone is cool, despite the narrative of cosmic destruction. And surprisingly, for such a long novel, it does not contain superfluous text or repetitions. It is, as I mentioned, written in formal business-like English with the occasional metaphor or simile, and the emotions of the characters are shown by their actions, not by their dialogue or inner monologues. In that sense, it is fairly typical of many novels by Chinese authors that I’ve read.

The journey to the conclusion of this long work is never irritating or boring. But as with any massive work of fiction, a few pages per day provides sufficient mental flossing to engage and puzzle the reader. I cannot say without a doubt that Liu, contrary to what critics of SF have said, gets the scope of space right. He seems to have done so. But he describes the world he has created, complete with its laws of physics, so cogently, so specifically, that I could set all doubt aside and just enjoy it.

About the author and translator

LIU Cixin (born 1963) is a superstar author in China, and a superstar SF author in the world of literature. “…Liu Cixin, China’s most popular science-fiction writer. Liu is fifty-one years old [now 54] and has written thirteen books. Until very recently, he worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi. In China, he is about as famous as William Gibson in the United States; he’s often compared to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he cites as an influence. His most popular book, “The Three-Body Problem,” has just been translated into English by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu, and in China it’s being made into a movie, along with its sequels.” (China’s Arthur C. Clarke, by Joshua Rothman, March 6, 2015, The New Yorker, rtrvd. 2017-07-07) Liu is nine-time winner of Kehuan Shijie [“SF World”] Yinhe (Chinese Galaxy) Award: 1999–2006, 2010; winner of the World Chinese Science Fiction Association’s Xingyun (Nebula) Award for best writer: 2010; winner of the 2015 Hugo Award in Best Novel, for English language version of The Three Body Problem; and winner of the 2015 Xingyun Award for Best Achievement.  Here is an interesting article of the status of SF in China: In a Topsy-Turvy World, China Warms to Sci-Fi, Liu Cixin’s ‘The Three-Body Problem’ Is Published in U.S., by Amy Qin, Nov. 10, 2014, New York Times.(Rtrvd. 2017-07-07)

Ken Liu (born 1976) is an extremely prolific American Science Fiction and Fantasy writer, and translator of Science Fiction and Literary Fiction from Chinese into English. He has translated LIU Cixin’s Death’s End (死神永生, 2010) and Three Body (三体, 2008), published by Tor Books as The Three-Body Problem in November 2014. Liu was born in 1976 in Lanzhou, China, and immigrated to the United States when he was a child. Liu earned his A.B. in English from Harvard College and worked in the technology field for several years before earning his J.D. at Harvard Law School and entering the field of tax law. More recently, he has switched to a career as a litigation consultant in technology cases, where he can use both his legal and technology skills.

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