On Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Liu Cixin’s Death’s End
Death’s End was difficult for me to finish. As the final entry in Liu Cixin’s heralded Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it had a lot to wrap up—and it looked the part. Six-hundred-plus pages, and in them the promise of a resolution to the interstellar conflict introduced in the The Three-Body Problem, an exploration of the universal truce that wraps up the The Dark Forest, and (knowing Cixin) a fleet of other astrophysical possibilities plopped into the galactic pot. But these plot-centric concerns deterred me less than the question that every story must answer, and which a series must answer with more evidence than most. That is: why? Who gives a shit about any of this? Even if this is the way you (the writer) think the world (in this case, the universe) is, the way you think things will go: why should I (the reader) have ever given you even a second of my limited days?
To say I was unsure that Cixin could answer this question is an understatement. The reason I doubted him lies with the central claim of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I finished more-or-less concurrent with Death’s End. The success of a piece of writing, she claims, depends predominantly upon the honesty of the narrator. They must know what they are talking about; they must also know why. And while the emphasis of a piece depends upon what kind of piece it is—an essay prioritizes the what; a memoir the why—the necessity of this journey toward truth does not change. Whether we are following along with Edward Hoagland as he taxidermies his own loneliness in “The Courage of Turtles” or tracing the course of Thomas De Quincey’s self-annihilation in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the organizing movement is one toward truth. “We are in the presence,” Gornick writes, “of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows.” Even if the ending is bleak, even if the narrator remains trapped in inaction despite their epiphany—even if the realization of their trappedness is their epiphany—we and they can now see. The pit has been illuminated. The story is clear.
Admittedly, fiction is a different beast, and might succeed on other merits than those Gornick attributes to memoirs and essays. But the best fiction, I think, does the same thing as the best nonfiction. It asserts the author’s truth. It shows us how they arrived at this truth. It leaves us with the decision of whether or not we buy in. And it was this quality that I found absent in Death’s End’s predecessors. Cixin’s ability to collapse abstract concepts (least among them the Fermi paradox, chaos theory, higher dimensionality, and curvature propulsion) to concrete description is second to none. Where he struggles is in expressing his view on these scientific marvels, and more specifically humanity’s relationship with them. Within Gornick’s framework, Cixin is a writer thoroughly versed in the universe’s situation; he knows far less about its story.
And then we reach the end of Death’s End.
It is easy to apprehend the cosmos and balk. The thesis both The Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest end on is one of prehistoric, tooth-and-claw competition. To come into contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life is to set into motion a civilization’s death. The universe is indifferent, and its inhabitants are all children of Darwin. The ultimate goal of everyone—of all life, down to the simplest of single-cell organisms—is to survive, no matter the costs.
But in Death’s End, Cixin leaves us with a different message. Cheng Xin, the novel’s protagonist, the woman tasked with saving or destroying the world, chooses to doom it—not once, but twice. And she does so out of love, deciding to save the people around her instead of preserving Earth’s civilization at the cost of uncounted lives. And her actions have consequences. Human civilization is annihilated, reduced to a two-dimensional tombstone in a matter of days. In the end, all that remains of humanity are four souls—Cheng, two others, and a man who long ago bought her a star—and a broadcasted message that plays on a micro-universe’s screen as the larger universe is undergoing its death throes. They were there, this message reads. They existed. They endured.
Humanity, Trisolaris, fifty-seven million other civilizations—all they could do was survive. And even though their efforts to survive doomed all of existence, this wasn’t—isn’t—a bad thing. The telos of life is to stave off death, and the way it often does so is by clinging to that which it loves. It’s a grim sort of love, this—small, thoughtless, selfish. But it’s still love. Death’s End ends on the shot of a drop of dew on a blade of grass in a pocket universe turning back the light of a man-made sun. It’s a small part of the final human artifact in a universe in which entropy rules. It’s the message Cixin leaves us with, and it’s what places the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy among the finest science fiction of this century. All love is survival; the purpose of life is to endure. Defiance is all we are. And this is enough.