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Death's End, the conclusion to Liu Cixin's celebrated Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, is a multi-layered and complex tale that moves through both time and space to tell an epic story with a breathtaking scope in a translation by Ken Liu that handles both the nuances of fairy tales and the specifics of mathematical speculation with transparent skill

The core narrative is centred on the brilliantly innovative scientist Cheng Xin, and its beginning unfolds concurrently with the early years of the Wallfacer project, which was the focus of the second novel of the trilogy. While Luo Ji develops his understanding of the sociology of interstellar relations - the Dark Forest theory, that advanced civilisations will both hide their own existence, and destroy any developing civilisations that may become a threat - and its defensive corollory, dark forest deterrence, the threat of revealing to the universe the wherabouts of the Trisolaris system - Cheng Xin's early work is in the outward-looking Staircase Program, an attempt to accelerate a probe to a sufficient fraction of lightspeed that it will meet the Trisolaris Fleet, carrying a unique cargo, the brain of a human volunteer.

Cheng enters hibernation after the probe is launched, and wakes in the era of dark forest deterrence, an uneasy truce period between Earth and Trisolaris brought about by Luo Ji's discovery of the dark forest principle. Luo Ji has become the Swordholder, the person who will bear responsibility of releasing the signal that will transmit to the universe both the Trisolarian location, and Earth's, should the Trisolarians attempt to conquer Earth.

In a way, Cheng Xin's life from this point becomes the story of Earth's struggle with the idea of the dark forest, a contest of love and compassion against fear and destruction. She becomes the Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians act, she proves unable to do what will ultimately destroy both worlds.

As Cheng moves through the centuries, and eventually the millenia, through both hibernation and a series of relativistic incidents, the human race struggles for survival, for a path through and out of the dark forest - and in the process, the reader is presented with a cornucopia of ideas, theories, and concepts about everything from stellar mechanics to relativistic travel to multi-dimensional geometry, and all of it in the service of story.

Ultimately, the utter sterility and inevitable destructiveness of the dark forest is revealed, but Cheng, present even at the end of all things, manages to personify love and hope, sending a 'message in a bottle' that may alter the very nature of the universe to follow.

A stunning conclusion to a work of vast scope and intricate design, a sciencefictional masterpiece.

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If anything, Liu Cixin's The Dark Forest (translated by Joel Martinsen) is even more compelling a fiction of ideas than The Three Body Problem was. Where the focus of the first book's philosophical question was the nature of physical reality, in The Dark Forest, Liu explores the question of what his protagonist, Luo Ji, calls "cosmic sociology" - the relations of intelligent species.

These explorations are carried out in the midst of a long lead-up to a crisis - the 400-year voyage of an invading fleet from the scientifically and technologically advanced civilisation called Trisolaris. The Trisolarans, having evolved in the three-sun system of Earth's nearest neighbour Alpha Centauri (a difficult task as was shown in the virtual Three Body Problem game that played a major part in the first novel of the series), want a better piece of real estate, and have made it clear to humans that they are coming to take possession of Earth and its uncomplicated single-sun system.

They have already infiltrated Earth with intelligent multi-dimensional artificial life forms called sophons, which can monitor human actions, alter physical processes, and facilitate instantaneous communication between the Trisolarans and the humans who have formed a kind of religious cult (called the Earth-Trisolaris Organisation, or ETO) centred on them. The presence of the sophons and the actions of the ETO make it virtually impossible to mount any defense plan - as soon as a plan is communicated or stored on any kind of medium, the sophons will learn of it and disrupt it.

Humanity's solution is the Wallfacer Project. Four people are chosen and given carte blanche access to information and resources. Each is to develop a plan for the defense of humanity, but to conceal the nature of that plan from everyone, keeping the details entirely in their heads, using subterfuge as necessary to implement the plan without anyone knowing what it is until the actual conflict is at hand (the fact that these plans will, if successful, unfold over 400 years is made possible by the fortuitous existence of reliable hibernation technology). The ETO counters with the Wallbreakers, selected individuals whose job is to observe the Wallfacers, deduce their plan and make it public, thereby nullifying it.

The novel follows the four Wallfacers, three of whom are notable leaders and scientists, men of dedication and foresight, the sort of people one would expect to be chosen for such a project. Luo Ji, the fourth Wallfacer, is quite a different sort of man. An undistinguished university instructor with no significant achievements to his name, hedonistic and womanising, the only reason for his selection is that the leaders of the Wallfacer project have discovered that for some unknown reason, the ETO consider him a threat to the Trisolarans and have attempted to assassinate him.

One of the great joys of reading this book is watching the slow development of Luo Ji, from a rather unpleasant person with little to recommend him, into a wise and gentle man who truly is humanity's best hope for survival in the crisis.

In 'discovering' the essential tenets of cosmic sociology, Luo Ji's project encapsulates all that is pessimistic in our visions of humanity - a darkness that is echoed in the plans of the other Wallfacers and in the actions of others in the novel who seek their own solutions to the crisis. But in learning, finally, the meaning of love, Luo also shows the way to transcend despair and defeat, the path that leads through and out of the dark forest.

Eagerly awaiting the concluding volume of the series.

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Liu Cixin's novel, The Three Body Problem, is like nothing else I've read in recent memory - a true novel of science and ideas, specifically the ideas upon which science is based, it's probably the most essentially science-fictional thing I've ever read.

Science is based on the assumption(s) that there are laws, or descriptive formulae, which can be used to predict the behaviour of physical objects, and that these laws do not change. But what happens if one day the laws we believe to be the bedrock of our universe no longer function as they always have before - but are being affected by phenomena whose cause, nature and origin is unknown and external to our theories.

At one point in the novel, Liu's protagonist Wang Miao thinks to himself:
When the members of the Frontiers of Science discussed physics, they often used the abbreviation “SF.” They didn’t mean “science fiction,” but the two words “shooter” and “farmer.” This was a reference to two hypotheses, both involving the fundamental nature of the laws of the universe. In the shooter hypothesis, a good marksman shoots at a target, creating a hole every ten centimeters. Now suppose the surface of the target is inhabited by intelligent, two-dimensional creatures. Their scientists, after observing the universe, discover a great law: “There exists a hole in the universe every ten centimeters.” They have mistaken the result of the marksman’s momentary whim for an unalterable law of the universe. The farmer hypothesis, on the other hand, has the flavor of a horror story: Every morning on a turkey farm, the farmer comes to feed the turkeys. A scientist turkey, having observed this pattern to hold without change for almost a year, makes the following discovery: “Every morning at eleven, food arrives.” On the morning of Thanksgiving, the scientist announces this law to the other turkeys. But that morning at eleven, food doesn’t arrive; instead, the farmer comes and kills the entire flock.
The Three Body Solution weaves together the stories of two scientists, Wang Miao and Ye Wenjie, and in so doing unveils the truth and the hidden factors behind the sudden variability of scientific law.

Ye is a gifted astrophysicist who, having seen her father murdered during the Cultural Revolution, has lost faith in humanity. Assigned to work on a top-secret SETI project, she initiates the first contact communication with extrasolar life - and conceals this from her colleagues. Wang, whose story unfolds many years later when Ye is an old woman, is a nanotech engineer brought into a secret multi-national organisation of military and scientific personnel who - without any awareness of Ye's actions, believe that humanity is under attack by some unknown enemy who have focused on destabilising scientific knowledge and advancement on earth. Wang is selected to join because he has also been contacted by a group that is believed to know something about, or be influenced by, this unknown enemy.

Urged to find out as much as he can, Wang discovers a unique virtual reality game called 3Body, which uses figures and cultures from human history but is set on an alien planet where there are no predictable seasons, no regular pattern of days and nights, and where the sun seems to change size, path, and distance from the planet's surface at random. There are Stable Eras, when conditions are livable, and during those times civilisations develop, and Chaotic Eras, during which conditions can become so erratic and extreme that all life must go into hibernation or perish. As Wang plays the game, he discovers that this game is in effect set on a planet that is caught in the gravity fields of multiple suns - a simulation of the classic three-body problem in physics - and the apparent goal of the game appears to be to solve the problem so civilisation can develop normally. Unfortunately, in real-life physics, the problem is considered unsolvable.

The known laws of physics can easily produce general solutions for the movement of a system consisting of a single body, or of two bodies, but it cannot produce a general solution for the movement of a system consisting of three bodies. One can find solutions for individual cases of a three-body system with specific conditions, but there is no general solution known that can solve any such system.

The game, however, turns out to have another, sinister purpose - to recruit specific individuals into a conspiracy that harkens back to Ye's decades-old interstellar communication, and that knows what factors lie behind the sudden instability of physical laws, and the purpose for their existence.

An astonishing, even mind-blowing novel, ably translated by Ken Liu.


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