Top critical review
We must cultivate our own garden--until an alien race targets us for casual destruction.
Reviewed in the United States on June 2, 2019
This is actually a review for the entire trilogy of Remembrance of Earth's Past. I found the series both interesting and frustrating, but ultimately a letdown.
The first two books appealed to me as smart physics puzzles and sociological studies with some political thriller mixed in: technologically advanced aliens have to leave their unstable solar system; when they intercept a SETI-style message from Earth, they dispatch a fleet to take over the planet. The fleet will arrive in 400 years (due to distance and lack of warp-drive ships). The author has a great time investigating various physics-related angles of technological development (unfolding higher dimensions into lower ones, artificial intelligence, propulsion systems for spacecraft, etc.) plus sociological and psychological effects (how humans react to a certain but distant threat, the existence of other intelligences, conflict within human society compared to an external threat, and so on).
The second book throws in another wrinkle: cosmic sociology,which posits that the ultimate goal of every civilization is to survive, and that due to difficulty in communication and total lack of trust, any contact between two civilizations will result in the more advanced immediately and arbitrarily destroying the other (the "dark forest" scenario, in which every civilization is lurking like a hunter in the forest, concealing itself and shooting at anything that moves). That's pretty dark, but one of the characters comes to a smart solution to stalemate the conflict. So far,so good, with the author playing "fair," using his own rules and setting up events that pay off later....
Until the last book, which abandons that fair-play principle, as well as the hard-science fiction view of the characters. Instead of observing various people from a distance (as most hard-SF books and movies do) as factors in a larger interlocking chain of events, the third book narrows down to one woman. She's initially introduced as a specialist in physics and engineering, and does get one project to show what a great problem solver she is--but then the author dives into her emotions, giving her a core of "maternal instinct" that boils down to "don't let anybody get hurt at the moment, whether the ultimate outcome will be good or not." From there, the author puts her in the position to make three decisions that literally determine the fate of Earth, the Solar System, and (it is implied) the entire universe. And that's where it all falls apart. Sure, the applications of physics and technology are interesting and rooted in current theory, and the broader sociological/governmental reactions seem accurate (governments passing short-sighted laws, the public reactionary and fickle, most people selfishly looking out for themselves, etc.), and the author's still having a wonderful time exploring everything from collapsing dimensions to techniques for lightspeed travel to what lower lightspeed would look like, but the story resorts to coincidences, weird character choices, and luck to make sure that the main character is in the right position each time.
Cixin breaks his own parameters for the "dark forest," with one character toward the end of Book 3 tossing off a line about how the refugees from Earth actually have run into members of other civilizations, who apparently do communicate and interact with each other--one planet is even close to a major shipping lane! I appreciate an author's right to pursue any story he wants to, with no obligation to follow other lines that the readers suggest, but it seems weird to introduce an entire alternate viewpoint to the "hide or kill" environment without even a follow-up sentence. The original aliens and all kinds of human characters act out of character, displaying interests, attitudes, talents or abilities that weren't set up originally, like a mid-level clerk suddenly developing amazing literary talent, a sociopathic striver suddenly giving in to sentimental twaddle, and all kinds of brilliant scientists completely missing important clues while picking up others easily.
To make it worse, Cheng Xin, that new "motherly" (but single and no children and no real connections to anybody) main character we follow through Book 3 is not even interesting--she's suicidally depressed over making choices that turn out badly, and revives only enough to make the next disastrous decision. Her one-dimensionality and the way the events constantly prove her wrong were stark enough to make me wonder if the author meant to disparage feminine abilities in general as based in emotion instead of reason (everything she does is out of "love"), and therefore weak or stupid (though he does give us a hard-charging capitalist girl who is very competent indeed). But Cixin isn't interested in developing Cheng Xin beyond a sentimental drama queen; he's much more intrigued with exploring the eventual death of the universe. In fact, the title of the last book is "The End of Death," which seems pretty ironic, since of course Death ends when the universe does. So for me the series was a letdown at the end for lots of story-related reasons.
But the biggest underlying problem, from my perspective, is that the author and all the characters bought into the idea that physical life is the highest good--survival is all that matters, and even surviving under horrible circumstances at great cost is preferable to death. Compassion, honor, striving, serving, self-sacrifice, bravery, and hope/faith in something greater don't have any place in that value system. reading all 1800 pages was a stark lesson in the ultimate poverty of materialism--if life is all there is, and the quality of life doesn't matter, no wonder the overall outlook is so amazingly dark and grim! The closest to a positive mindset any of the characters got was just "carpe diem"--live as comfortably as you can right now, and don't worry about the future, the next generation, or the ultimate meaning of anything. No wonder the whole story felt like such a pointless, depressing scramble toward nothing!
Oh, and the "ambiguous" ending doesn't help matters--once again, we have Cheng Xin making a decision that we have reason to believe, from all previous evidence, will turn out badly for everyone.