- The Good: Contemplative exploration of children in charge in this apocalyptic scifi
- The Bad: Dominantly male perspective; distant narration; far-fetched premise
- The Literary: Told by a much later historian as a pseudo-documentary, incorporating memoir and interviews
Liu Cixin, the acclaimed Chinese science fiction author, has only recently become known in the western world with the translation of his Hugo award winning hard science fiction trilogy and masterpiece The Three Body Problem. More recently translated Supernova Era is far less ambitious in scale, focusing instead on the sociopolitical ramifications of a supernova event that showers the Earth with deadly levels of radiation, killing everyone over the age of thirteen within the year.
If the details of that scientific premise bother you, know that Liu is not as interested in the astrophysical details of this apocalypse, though the scientific sequence detailing the death of the star is beautiful, and a foreshadowing of his future work. Accepting the conceit early allows the reader to focus on the characters, most of whom belong to a middle school class in Beijing, including the dreamer with big ideas Huahua, practical Xiomeng, and theoretical Specs. Our heroes, and all children, must face the emotional, practical, and political ramifications of being abandoned by adults.
The planet is forever changed as well. The sky is a different color, and a huge nebula casts blue light all hours of the day. With the drastic reduction in population, streets of large cities are like ghost towns, and over a course of years, coastal cities fill with water as the planet warms and the ice caps melt.
One of the things I love about this story is the acceptance that children are in no way just small adults. The grownups attempt to prepare the children to carry on the world as it is now, but the children soon realize the impossibility of that goal. Kids are expected to work their parents’ jobs, take care of the babies, and continue their education. But children are not motivated by the same things that motivate adults, and the systems and goals of society are soon re-written.
Liu began writing this book in 1989, and the rapid economic development and social change in post-Mao China, as well as the tragedy of the Tianamen Square massacre all seem somehow infused in this story. The uncertainty and anxiety for the future, the disconnect between those in power and everyday citizens, crowd dynamics, the lack of respect for a single human life are all here. Time marches on whether we’re ready for it or not.
The story isn’t perfect though. Setting aside my expectations for hard scifi, the premise is a bit dodgy, the omniscient narration is distant, and seemingly important plot devices are dismissed when no longer needed. The fact that grownups could accept their fate long enough to prepare their children with as much government oversight as much as they do seems far-fetched. As do thirteen-year-old pilots, physicians, or engineers who sustain their professions with only a year of training. Similar to its Lord of the Flies inspiration, the characters and story lack female perspective and motivation.
However, great scifi is a tool for thought experiments as much as anything else. You could read this as a parable for why children are not capable and see their short-sighted reasoning and mistakes as ignorant and devastating in their lasting consequences. But as adults we lose agility and creativity, quickly learn complacency, and forget how to play. However, I prefer to see this story as an allegory on a grander scale both historically and evolutionary. Humanity is still a child, and the technology we create are still toys with implications we do not fully grasp. In the universe, we are but a speck of life, alone and infantile on a cosmological timeline, still fighting amongst ourselves and casually throwing away natural resources and human life.
Highly recommended for fans speculative socio-politics, scifi, and Cixin!