The Supernova Era by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen (book review).

Cixin Liu returns with another enthralling novel in ‘The Supernova Era’. Well, he only returns in English as the original Chinese version was published before his well-known ‘Three Body Trilogy’ made his big break into the English market. This novel has the same studiously well-thought-out plot and situation, the same attention to detail and a similar holistic outlook as the ‘Three Body’ books. While focussing on a small number of characters, it continues to give us a picture of China as a whole, interspersed with historical quotes reflecting back on the events of the novel from a future time.

Following a supernova eight light years away, a wave of radiation kills off everyone over the age of thirteen, leading to a seismic shift in the way the world works. This being China or at least the China of Cixin Liu’s imagination, the impending death of most of the world’s population doesn’t lead to mass hysteria, panic, looting and chaos. A huge operation is set in motion to hand over the country in an orderly fashion, making provision for the children and preparing them as best as possible to take over their own destinies.

The book’s three main characters are Huahua, Xiaomeng and Specs, three talented children who are thrust into a world of responsibility with very little preparation. Their personal journeys against the backdrop of huge social revolutions are touching and endlessly intriguing.

As I was reading, my imagination ran away with me, trying to work out how this would happen here in the UK, what arrangements would need to be put in place and how things would work out. Similar to Liu Cixin’s other novel ‘Ball Lightning’, this book followed Luke Skywalker’s words from ‘The Last Jedi’: ‘This is not going to go the way you think.’ My expectations were constantly confounded as Liu Cixin’s imagination takes the children’s world of ‘The Supernova Era’ developed in unexpected directions, all based on extrapolations of how society would react with no adult supervision, how children feel about work, play and the value of life.

In some parts, this led to touching results, sometimes entertaining, often chilling and always surprising yet inevitable. While most of the story revolves around the struggle of the Chinese children left to cope on their own and lead their vast country, we are also introduced to the youthful British Prime Minister and American President, each of whose countries are developing in varied ways. The sometimes stereotyped views of these countries informs how they might develop, again leading to frighteningly plausible possibilities, especially in the case of the USA.

Amongst all of this speculative sociology and psychology, the only thing that didn’t ring true was when the British Prime Minister said there was no surviving heir to the throne. That seemed rather unlikely, considering there are currently several children even among the top ten in line to the throne. This obviously varies with time, but with over five thousand people currently in the succession, there surely would have been someone available. That was just a meaningless quibble though and was irrelevant to the rest of the plot.

As with previous Cixin Liu novels I’ve previously read, the prose and dialogue initially seems somewhat formal and stilted, but you quickly adjust to the style and become absorbed in the convincing storytelling. I don’t know what we’ll get next from Cixin Liu, but I’m looking forward to it.

Gareth D Jones

October 2019

(pub: Head Of Zeus, 2019. 348 page hardback. Price: £18.99. ISBN: 978-1-78854-238-8)

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