Review: Cixin Liu’s “Supernova Era”

by Miles Raymer

Supernova Era

Cixin Liu is one of the most important science fiction writers of our time. His work displays an expansive creativity and existential gravity that propel readers out of this world while simultaneously grounding us in the inescapable confines of biology and physics. Following his rise in popularity that accompanied the publication of The Three-Body Problem’s English translation in 2014, Liu also represents an opportunity for the English-speaking world to learn about Chinese history and present-day culture, as well as a chance to glimpse how Chinese intellectuals think of contemporary Western society.

This tension between modern China and the West is perhaps the most incisive feature of Liu’s Supernova Era, which was originally published in 2004 but not released in English until 2019. The novel provides a surprising and fascinating window into Liu’s ideas about childhood and civilizational survival, as well as his critiques of Western––especially American––cultural values. The premise is that, sometime in the early 21st century, a large star eight light-years from Earth goes supernova, causing a massive wave of radiation to envelop our solar system:

For an entire week high-energy rays had traversed every part of the solar system, and high-energy particles battered Earth like a rainstorm pouring down on land and sea, tearing through human bodies at unimaginably high velocity, penetrating every cell. And the tiny chromosomes in each of those cells were buffeted like fragile crystalline threads by those high-energy particles, which unraveled the DNA double helix and sent nucleotides spinning away. Damaged genes continued to operate, but the precise chain that had evolved through hundreds of millions of years of copying life had been snapped, and the mutated genes now spread death. Earth revolved humanity through a deadly shower, winding up the death clock in billions of bodies that now ticked slowly away…

Everyone above the age of thirteen would die, and Earth would become a children’s world. (54)

This passage reveals both Liu’s special talent for describing scientific phenomena (conveyed by Joel Martinsen’s able translation) as well as Supernova Era’s inherent silliness. I don’t mean silly in the sense of unserious, but rather in the sense of playful and good-natured mockery. I don’t know enough about the relationship between chromosomes and radiation to guess if it’s plausible that children thirteen and younger would survive such an event while older people wouldn’t, but regardless it’s a fun conceit to get us to the “children’s world” Liu is intent on exploring.

Due to their rapidly-degrading DNA, Earth’s adults have less than a year to turn the entirety of human civilization over to a bunch of infants, toddlers, children and preteens. Liu’s imaginings of how this situation might develop are inconsistent in quality, some scenarios turning out to be intriguing and instructive while others feel too far-fetched or just dull. He tries to weave them together using the idea that “child society is a play society,” but the novel reads more like a series of loosely-related thought experiments than a unified narrative (184). There are a handful of memorable characters, but not much rewarding character development. For better and worse, Supernova Era is more concerned with amusing ideas than with telling a gripping or heartbreaking story. The downside is that the novel can feel difficult to invest in, but the upside is that Liu gets to exercise more creative breadth than he might in a more straightforward book.

As an American, I was both delighted and appropriately shamed by the caricature Liu presents of my newly-prepubescent homeland. Given that the Chinese language version was published in 2004, Liu has proven remarkably prescient about the frivolous trends in American politics. His America is “a shattered piece of stained glass”––a once-great society now drowning in guns wielded by orphaned kids with itchy trigger fingers, and run by slick, shortsighted politicians taking cues from vampiric geopolitical geniuses (197). Sometimes it takes a foreigner’s perspective to properly elucidate America’s contemporary anomie:

Before the supernova, our fathers and mothers hid themselves inside the hard shells of skyscrapers, under the impression that they had the world in their pocket. Ever since the purchase of Alaska and Hawaii, they no longer expanded into new territory, no longer dreamed of new conquests, but turned slow and lazy, and the fat on their bellies and necks grew thick. They turned numb, became fragile and sentimental, trembled uncontrollably at the slightest casualty of war, and wailed and agitated disgracefully outside the White House. Later, when a new generation saw the world as nothing more than a scrap of toilet paper, hippies and punks became the new symbols of America. Now in the new era, children have lost their way and anesthetize themselves through violent games in the streets. (308)

Setting aside the pro-expansionist sentiments with which I don’t agree, this passage hits home––hard. Had I read Supernova Era in the Obama years, I would have thought Liu was unfairly pillorying my imperfect yet defensible nation. But in the Trump era, Liu’s crafty cynicism seems completely justified.

As one might expect given this book’s twists and turns, Liu wraps up with a series of weird and ambitious depictions of how a child’s world might experience international turmoil and, in the wake of disaster, attempt to engineer global stability. I didn’t find the story’s conclusion very satisfying, but the final thoughts of Liu’s Afterword are devastating:

Fear of abandonment is an eternal human constant. In the dark, you advance slowly in a particular direction holding hands with your mom and dad, and even though you can’t see them, those two hands keep your soul firmly anchored. All of a sudden they let go, and you grope helplessly around for them in the darkness, and you scream in desperation, but the infinite blackness swallows up your voice…It’s a dream that everyone probably had in their childhood, something every child fears.

And it is also the greatest fear of humanity as a whole, a terror deeply rooted in human civilization, one that occupies a key place in our spiritual life. Staring into the endless darkness of the cosmos, humanity futilely grasps for a pair of nonexistent hands, but we have so far been unable to find any signs of other intelligent civilizations from our vantage point on a planet that’s no more than a speck of dust in outer space, even as the gods of religion grow ever harder to make out. And therefore our world today is already that of the children in the novel: humanity is an orphan unable to find its parents’ hands, its mind full of terror and confusion even as sparks of naivete and unruliness flicker into flame…We may not even be as lucky as those children, since in our course of study there is no one to instruct us.

With that in mind, the story told in this novel is a fairly unremarkable one. (347-8)

Rating: 7/10