The third book in the Remembrance of Earth Chinese science fiction series by Cixin Liu, which was translated into English as Death’s End or Dead End (刘慈欣的”地球往事:死神永生”), is a thick volume with very minimal breaks between the scenes. The English translations mask a layer of meaning in the Chinese title, which has an obvious reference to the grim reaper (死神, which literally translates to death god) and eternal life or immortality (永生, which literally means forever exist). I don’t point this out to judge the translators’ choices, I’m merely pointing out the extra level of meaning knowing the original language gives the reader. Translation is good and gives a lot of people access to world literature, but in the end it’s really no substitute for reading the original work. This volume’s title is far more poetic and not clinical or scientific, which is intriguing. We’ll see if the reason those nuances were translated out makes sense as we read.
This volume will wrap up our ongoing series looking at the trilogy that we started last year. As expected with such a title, the Chinese edition has a very dramatic cover.
Set at 513 pages in the original Chinese and published in 2010, it opens with a list of eras that is worth spending some time on. Here is my tentative take on the list, which may change with the story context.
The Crisis Era 201X-2208 AD
The Military Deterrence Era 2208-2270 AD
After Military Deterrence 2270-2272 AD
The Broadcast Era 2272-2332 AD
The Bunker Era 2333-2400 AD
The Milky Way Era 2273 AD-Unclear
DX3906 Star System Black Territory 2687-18,906,416 AD
The 647th Cosmos Timeline 18,906,416 AD
That’s a pretty ambitious span of years for any writer to tackle, let alone in one volume, so it should be interesting to see what the author does with it. Otherwise, part 1 has around 36 segments, most of which are untitled and only marked off by a line break, again a very difficult sort of text to read in your non-native language due to the wall of text effect. The lack of breaks forms a psychological barrier, in my opinion.
Part 1 opens with some very intriguing story arcs. The first segment is one of the few titled scenes, referencing 1453 AD and the “death of a magician.” The emperor during the Ottoman Empire, his minister Fazhalan, and a manservant are central to the scene. A woman named Diaolunna enters and converses with the emperor about whether she has the ability to kill the sultan, and she mentions she has some skill with magic though she appears to be too weak. The first 13 pages of part 1 follows this storyline. This section also mentions the Holy Grail, decorated with precious stones and made of pure gold and crystal, and a cathedral built in 537 AD, which seems to be a reference to the Hagia Sofia. It seems Diaolunna knows something about the exact location of a secret room under the cathedral where holy items were kept. Only the Holy Grail was determined to be missing from it. They seem to be interested in recovering it, and the emperor asks Diaolunna again if she can kill the sultan. She says she can try.
In the successive segments of this story arc, Fazhalan gives Diaolunna a sheepskin sack, though she says she doesn’t need it. The Crusades have started, and Diaolunna states her goal is to become a holy woman. Fazhalan says she will if she kills the sultan, who appears to be Mehmed II, also known as Mehmed the Conquerer. Here’s some extra information on him:
Diaolunna enters Rome or a Roman city, I can’t tell which, and goes in with the troops to the battlefield. Later, there’s an uproar over an eclipse, and the characters are unsettled because Diaolunna hasn’t returned and they’ve had no news of her.
Finally, in the last dramatic segment of the story arc, Fazhalan stands before a tower and goes in. He finds no signs of life on the lower level but finds Diaolunna sleeping under a window on the second floor. She’s dirty and disheveled, her face is bloody, and her clothes are ripped. He asks her what she’s doing there, and she says she’s waiting. The conversation ranges from the sultan she was supposed to kill, the cathedral, the Roman Empire, and her goal to transform from a prostitute to a holy woman. Fazhalan takes out his sword and points the tip at her. The exact time and date of her death is given, and it ends with a description of her lying dead in the tower.
On page 13, we have a new title in boldface: “The First Year of the Crisis Era, Lifestyle Alternatives.” The story returns to Yang Dong, the scientist who committed suicide in volume 1. She’s on the control center’s rooftop balcony. This section reflects on her choice to pursue theoretical physics instead of taking the usual path to marriage and children like most women as well as on her mother and computers. Yang Dong knows the secret of Three Bodies, and a discussion with someone ensues about whether she believes in God and her thoughts on the impact of environmental changes on life on earth, particularly whether there will be any life left when the water all dries up. She thinks God isn’t relevant to the present world, though the question of life changing in the cosmos frightens her.
Next, the new boldfaced title, “Crisis Era, Year 4, Yun Tianming” (which literally means Cloud Daybreak), begins a twenty page story arc focusing on this character. We’re backtracking a little through the timeline by returning to this era, but I think this section is far more intriguing than our first pass at it in volume 2.
Dr. Zhang is on the hospital ward examining his patient Yun Tianming, who was hospitalized after the Three Bodies incident. There’s a TV in his room with some kind of news bulletin. The title of the broadcast is set off in bold on p. 19 and says “The Third People’s Congress Standing Committee Special Conference Adopted a Euthanasia Law.” (第三届人大常委会特别会议通过安乐死法). The euthanasia law doesn’t seem to be connected to Three Bodies, but the situation is odd.
The next night, Yun Tianming has trouble breathing and is coughing, and his friend in the next bed, Lao Li, tells him he plans on leaving. Yun Tianming asks if he means he’s leaving the hospital, but Lao Li says it will be euthanasia. The scene ends describing Yun Tianming’s tranquil dreams of riding in a small, oarless ship sailing along the water under a rainy, gray sky. However, he can’t see the shore, and he wakes up feeling strange.
Lao Li’s euthanasia comes next, and the structure of the next twenty pages has the same question bolded at intervals: “Do you want to end your life?” Each time, it gives a bolded variant for the patient’s responses, typically X number button for “yes” and zero for “no.” I don’t think Dr. Zhang wants Yun Tianming to undergo euthanasia, however, we do see Lao Li’s procedure. His family isn’t present since he hid the situation from them. It seems they’re doing the procedure in an office rather than a hospital in accordance with what the euthanasia law allows. Yun Tianming enters and looks around the fearsome room. Lao Li is in bed, appearing very calm.
The euthanasia law has two evidentiary procedures and requires witnesses. Laoli has to sign a notary book, and a person in white who may or may not be a doctor enters. The person in white has Lao Li answer some questions using the 6 buttons numbered 0 to 5. They leave, and Lao Li sits alone in the euthanasia room as the procedure begins. A beautiful female voice asks the question about him wanting to end his life three times. Each time, the “yes” button is a different number. Lao Li pushes the number for “yes” two times, and Yun Tianming thinks he will finally push zero the third time, but he pushes four for “yes” the last time, too. He’s injected without a sound, then doesn’t move. He appears to be sleeping. Dr. Zhang then tells Yun Tianming more about the procedure. It only takes 20 to 30 seconds to complete.
When Yun gets back to his sick room, he finds an old classmate Hu Wen waiting there. They talk about another classmate, a woman they remember by the name of Cheng Xin. This part mentions memories of boats on the water with her, and Yun Tianming suddenly thinks of his dreams of the rain and the shore. Then Hu Wen asks him about some green beverage called “green windstorm” that Yun Tianming has.
Later that night, Yun Tianming hears the TV news again, this time a broadcast on the United Nations and the Planetary Defense Council relaying a meeting about a star cluster plan it’s implementing. He’s distracted from the broadcast by a sudden thought of Cheng Xin before he continues to listen. Another heading is set off in bold, and there is a “Crisis of Childishness” or something along those lines. The effect of the Three Bodies Crisis Era on human civilization is also elaborated upon. The star plan has 2 parts, one regarding the United Nation’s status as the global government the world looks to as it confronts Three Bodies as a common enemy of humanity, and the second is the emergence and popularity of a new fugitive ideology. The general secretary, a woman named Zhang Sayi, made the star plan her first priority, and its foundation in international law is “the Special Pledge.”
Yun Tianming finds a way to call Hu Wen to ask him for Cheng Xin’s contact information, but Hu Wen says she hasn’t been in the country recently. The next day, Yun Tianming receives a short letter from Hu Wen with Cheng Xin’s info but not her work unit. The letter has two mailing addresses for her, one for Shanghai and one for New York. Then the scene seems to shift as we see him talk with a pretty little girl at a UN meeting. Perhaps it’s a memory?
In the next scene, Yun Tianming ends up back in the euthanasia room. Like Lao Li, he hasn’t said anything to his family about the procedure. Five people are in the room: two witnesses, one guide, one nurse, and one hospital director. Dr. Zhang isn’t among them. He tells the guide he already knows the procedure from when he was on the other side of the glass. When he’s alone in the room with the nurse, whom he thinks is pretty, she puts the automatic injection needle in his left arm.
The euthanasia procedure starts, asking the boldfaced question with the button instructions for the first time. It asks it five times, each with a dramatic pause in the procedure as Yun Tianming reflects upon things like his family background, his father, his school days, Cheng Xin, his work, his lung cancer, etc. Each segment has a line break before the question is asked again, and the segments end with him pressing the button choosing euthanasia. At the end of the sequence, it turns out a woman is sitting on the other side of the glass observing him. It’s Cheng Xin. It’s as if she heard him calling out for her in his heart.
This whole twenty page sequence was particularly interesting and nicely done, but it gets more interesting since the next twenty page story arc follows Cheng Xin from the boldfaced heading: “Crisis Years 1 through 4, Cheng Xin.” This part has around twelve segments set off by line breaks. It starts with an acknowledgement that, as the Crisis Era erupted on the scene, Cheng Xin had just finished school and had started working as part of a rocket research group. There is a mention of the UN and the PDC (Planetary Defense Council), but Cheng Xin accepts a job working as a spaceflight technology assistant for the PIA (the Planetary Defense Council Strategic Intelligence Agency).
The next sections go into the PIA and its work against the Three Bodies World before returning to another italicized section detailing an “extract” about the human eye – I can’t figure out what “winter eye” might translate to, but it represents technology providing a considerable advance for humanity once the Crisis Era restrictions on it have been lifted. Cheng Xin is working on this research technology and goes to Sanya, Hainan where there is a research facility at an academy of medical sciences.
A handful of pages later, we get another italicized excerpt about plan titled “a fire dragon emerging from water, a crossbow and a ladder,” which has some reference to Ming Dynasty fire arrows and other weapons, so it’s a war plan. We’ve seen the ladder before with the space elevators, but that’s still coming up.
In the last segment of this section covering Cheng Xin, we see her go to Yun Tianming’s bedside. She lets him die through euthanasia, thinking this is the best result.
The final section I’m going to look at closes part 1 of the book and begins with the boldfaced title “Crisis Years 5 to 7, The Staircase Project.” These next five or six segments continue with Cheng Xin’s storyline and the research into the “ladder” plan with a few final thoughts on Yun Tianming, which is a particularly nice touch. All of the story arcs circle back to him somehow by the end. Part 1 is a real tour de force.
Part 1 of 3.