Review: The Supernova Era by Cixin Liu

Review: Supernova Era

What I love about science fiction is how it can take the familiar world and change one single element to create something we have never seen before. This ‘what if?‘ element gives the super-genre of speculative fiction its name, but within that genre science fiction’s ‘what-ifs’ are simply the most diverse in their scope, impact, and beauty. Fantasy, in comparison, is always some version of ‘what if magic were real’. Science fiction can be – but isn’t always – far more subtle than this. A good story doesn’t have to change the universe, only our perception of it. The premise of The Supernova Era by Cixin Liu illustrates this beautifully: the setting is our present world, complex yet familiar, but the twist is that all the adults are dying. All of them. The children were always going to inherit the Earth, sure, but now the schedule has been moved up to next year.

Spoiler alert: Proceed at your own risk. Or be a rebel and rush in; I’m not your mother.

A distant sun explodes, and a deadly wave of radiation overruns the Earth. Everyone over the age of thirteen is given a year to live. Society as we know it is over. Or is it? The adult’s first impulse, which is believable, is to have children maintain adult responsibilities. Society needs electricity, electricity needs coal and powerplants, these in turn need staff. Children are given a brief education maintaining society, and then left to get on with it after the adults die. This part of the story is all to easy to imagine, and is pretty funny. Children in hardhats on constructive sites. Children in suits, acting as diplomats. Children in tanks. I enjoyed imagining this world. Cixin Liu’s style is beautiful, easy to follow. His world rolls on, children replacing their parents in a most literal way. And, for a while, it works. (Believable? Not really. Readable? Completely).

The story shifts; the children can act like adults, but do they want to? As anyone with a job knows, work is often boring. Children dislike boredom; they prefer games, play. Money, to a child, is less important than the freedom of playtime. The old order starts to fold as fun replaces finance. This is where things get weird. Children from across the world start to play violent games. They gather together in Antarctica for the Olympics of senseless violence. They get stuck in; children die. It was, at times, a little too graphic for me. I also didn’t understand where these ideas had come from, where they were going. What is Cixin Liu saying about war? That is a natural impulse that has to be curbed by adult discipline? That it is childish, stupid, destructive without purpose? That humanity is, in the grand scheme of things, so base in our being that we are only entertained by the sight of blood?

Then the story get’s weirder; the solution to all this violence for the populations of China and the USA to swap countries. At this point, I think, I literally lost the plot a little. I didn’t get why swapping countries was considered a good idea, or why it would solve anything at all. Maybe – probably – I missed something here. Finally, resolution. The children grow up. They mature and, in a move that I found surprisingly dull, they move to the suburbs and settle down (in this case, the suburbs are Mars).

My favorite aspect of this story is how is all springs from a single, powerful, universal change in human society. Adults disappear; humanity (or Cixin Liu’s opinion of it) emerges, unmentored, in a raw form that we never-the-less recognize as believable. This story did not go where I expected it to. There were parts I found shocking, even unpleasant to read. Child-on-child violence is not something I was expecting to read, and I wouldn’t read it twice.

Once, though? Absolutely.

Read this if: You like your dystopias serves with a twist of genius rather than the normally stodgy slice of teenage anxst.

Rating: Three out of five – I greatly preferred the Three Body Problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *