About halfway through Death’s End, the central character Cheng Xin meets with Yun Tianming – a human who has been living within the hostile alien society of Trisolaris. Change Xin (and humanity) are desperate to discover how to survive in what they have come to realise is an inherently hostile universe. Yun Tianming is eager to help but the Trisolarans do not wish for humanity to gain any advantage. Under threat of immediate execution of Cheng Xin, if he reveals anything, Yun Tianming decides to tell her three interconnected fairy tales – ostensibly stories they shared as children.
The stories appear to be charming fables about magical paintings, a beautiful princess, giants and tyrannical usurpers. However, each one is a layered metaphor revealing deeper secrets about how the universe works. That each story contains some elements that are metaphors and some that are simply decorative flourishes is clear to humanity’s scientists and leaders but they have no clear way of separating the message from the medium.
The whole of Death’s End can feel like Yun Tianming’s fairy tales – some of it feels like filler, sets of events that are there just to move the characters further into the future, while other parts feel like they are attempting to make a wider observation about human society. The core character, Cheng Xin is portrayed as both clever and compassionate but also repeatedly placed in positions of almost dictatorial power over humanity – and on each occasion, she fails to make the ‘right’ decision by being too considerate and too inclined towards peace.
Given the basic premise established in the previous book, The Dark Forest, that each and every intelligent species in the universe is locked in an inescapable kill-or-be-killed conflict, it isn’t surprising that throughout the book borderline psychopathic men are shown to be right in retrospect and Cheng Xin’s humanism is repeatedly shown to be disastrous. Indeed, Cheng Xin’s one cynical act early in the book (involving Yun Tianming) is what proves to be her wisest choice.
As with the previous novels in the trilogy (The Three Body Problem, and The Dark Forest), Death’s End is clever and ambitious, spanning centuries (and eventually aeons) and rarely following predictable beats. At times it really sparkles but much of the time it falls into the same trap as The Dark Forest, recounting sequences of events with shallow characterisation that feel oddly inconsequential given the momentous themes of humanity’s survival.
In the latter half of the book, Cheng Xin is woken from hibernation to find that humanity is mainly living in space habitats, orbiting the Sun but hidden behind Jupiter and other gas giants. The story spends some time discussing the different styles of shapes for each habitat and Cheng Xin visits several. Why? Like much of the info-dumps in the book it feels both perfunctory and important – rather like a fairy tale or something like the Voyage of Saint Brendan where he visits one unusual island after another but the deeper significance is unobvious (or just not there). So, rather like Yun Tianming’s fairy tales, you are left wondering what is of deeper significance and what is simply the connective tissue of a story.
Undoubtedly epic in scope, the moments of sparkle feel overwhelmed by a focus on details that feel irrelevant. Inherently trapped between fatalism and endorsement of a merciless view of survival at all cost, this is not an easy read. In the end though, I am reminded of the immortal words of the Simpson family:
Marge: Well, then maybe the moral is, no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn’t written that nasty letter we wouldn’t have gotten anything.
Marge: Mmmm… then I guess the moral is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Maybe there is no moral, Mom.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that.
It certainly was a memorable few days.