Best Novel Nominees: Death’s End

Welcome to a new series of posts, in which I talk through this year’s Hugo nominees in a few of the categories.  I’m going to start with the novels, and I’ll go through them in reverse order of my ballot – i.e. saving my top choice for the category until the end.

This has been one of the hardest Hugo votes I have ever had to cast, because any one of these six novels would be well deserving of the award against a slightly weaker field.  One thing that makes it a little easier is the fact that two of the novels come from series where previous works have already won a Hugo.  In my opinion, a sequel to a Hugo-winning work has to be better than any of the other nominees by a large margin for me to prefer awarding that series another Hugo, instead of giving it to a novel from a series that hasn’t won one yet.  Think of it as trying to maximize the amount of recognition shown to great novels; a second Hugo for the same series doesn’t mean as much as a first Hugo for a different one, all else being equal.  Accordingly, we’ll start with one of those sequels: Death’s End, by Cixin Liu, the final volume of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.  The first book of the series, The Three-Body Problem, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2015.

I read The Three-Body Problem as part of the Hugo reading that year, and found it entertaining but paced kind of oddly; it is mostly concerned with setting up the historical context of the ensuing conflict, and so little happens and less is resolved in the first book.  I just this month read the rest of the trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End, back-to-back, and I think if I’d read 3BP along with the others I might have enjoyed it a bit more as well – reading it simply as the first third of a story and not as a novel on its own.

The Dark Forest introduced the concept of “dark forest deterrence”, akin to the threat of mutually-assured destruction that sustained the Cold War, as well as various game-theoretical deterrence scenarios.  In Death’s End we see the failure mode of those ideas, and the ensuing breakdown of the detente that ended The Dark Forest, together with some classic SFnal “big ideas” (dimensional physics! light-speed travel! space habitats!), drive the trilogy’s plot to its end.  Death’s End was certainly an ambitious conclusion to the story, and managed to continue heightening the stakes (set at “the conquest of Earth” from the very beginning) in an engaging way, which made even the occasional peaceful interludes in the story tense with the anticipation of what was about to go wrong next.  The events at the very end of the book felt a little inconsistent with the themes of deterrence and mistrust established by the rest of the story, but on reflection it allows the characters to discard the paranoia that they had been forced to live with for so long, and finish the story in an act of cooperation instead.

The Dark Forest references Asimov’s Foundation series at one point, and the Asimovian influence on Liu is clear, both in positive and negative aspects – his work grapples with ideas on the scale of human history and beyond, while also contemplating the role of the individual in shaping the course of history, but his characters themselves feel more like archetypes than fully fleshed-out people.  Still, his characterization is an improvement on Asimov’s, in that he does a somewhat better job of motivating the behaviors that the plot requires of its characters, even if the characters’ backstories occasionally seem designed to purposefully sculpt the characters towards those behaviors.  (Which is true of many character arcs in plot-driven stories, of course, but the scaffolding isn’t always so apparent.)  The use of hibernation technology also allows Liu to maintain the same characters over hundreds of years (and more) of plot; Asimov’s reintroduction of new characters in each “Seldon Crisis” is one of the things preventing decent character development in much of the Foundation trilogy.  Liu also makes use of another classic SFnal narrative approach in Death’s End; he avoids excessive expository dialogue by frequently cutting to excerpts from a later-written history, which also allows him to depict humanity-spanning events succinctly and more or less objectively.

Death’s End takes the bottom slot on my Hugo ballot.  But that is not meant as a condemnation; rather, it speaks to the strength of the rest of the field, and my opinion that awarding Remembrance of Earth’s Past a second Hugo would do a disservice to the four other works on the ballot that have not already been so honored.  If The Three-Body Problem had not won a Hugo already, this would have been a far more difficult choice.


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