Superb Science Fiction in Supernova Era by Cixin Liu

This post is part of the Reading Writers of Color 2021 challenge hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media’s staff writer and editor, Dan Michael Fielding.

In one year the adults will be gone, and children shall inherit the Earth. 

In Supernova Era humanity enters a new age. Only 8 light years away a star escaped our notice until it was too late. The star goes supernova, bathing the Earth and all life upon it in radiation. A terrible period of global warming is to come, but the more immediate effects are even more astonishing: within a year everyone over the age of 13 will die.

In Cixin Liu’s imagining of this cataclysmic event, humanity deals with impending disaster with surprising aplomb and poise. The adults prepare to hand over control of all the countries of the world, but first they must determine which of the children are most fit to lead. What follows is a prelude to the main theme of the book: what would a children’s war look like?

I have been a fan of Liu’s work since I read The Three Body Problem, a truly fascinating First Contact-style story. His work is steeped in a deep understanding of natural science and physics, but is also accompanied by a thorough critique of the sociological and political aspects of our world. Although it is a fantastical premise–a star so near by that we simply never noticed it!–Liu is so exact in his explanation of how and why this happened that it left me with a deep sense of dread over an impending disaster.

Supernova Era is told mostly through short vignettes following the children of this new world which are interspersed with quotes, interviews, and statements from the historical record. The book is written from the perspective of an historian reflecting back on how this “Supernova Era” developed. I enjoyed these fragments of historical record. They added a depth to the story and often added needed context in a superbly straightforward fashion. In another story this context might have been buried beneath mountains of description, but Liu’s straightforward style of writing allows the story to propel along quickly without losing momentum.

Although I’m also a fan of flowery prose, I find Liu’s sparse, almost formal, style of writing to be refreshing. There were a few moments when the writing became a bit robotic–such as when the children had long periods of dialogue together. Their formal way of speaking did take me out of the story for a moment–do kids really speak this way?–although this formality could also be read as an interesting effect as the children are forced to grow up too quickly. The formality may also be an artifact of translation. Liu is a science fiction writer in the People’s Republic of China. This particular work was translated by Joel Martinsen, who does an excellent job juggling the complex science and politics of Supernova Era.

As I mentioned, Liu is primarily interested in exploring what a “children’s war” would look like. If we adults left behind a world filled with tanks, bombers, guns, war ships, and even nuclear weapons, what would children do with these items? What is a gun to a child who hasn’t yet developed an adult’s sense of caution? The answer is both heartbreaking and shocking, playful and perfectly logical. Most of what the children of this new world do feels quite natural given the context they have found themselves in.

Although most of the book takes place in China and follows Chinese children, as an American I was particularly interested in how Liu integrated America and American children into this new political milieu. In the world of Supernova Era America is much as it is now: a world “leader” clinging to power, obsessed with guns, and deeply distrustful of China, Russia, and other powerful countries. My one critique of how Liu imagines America would have to be the lack of non-white children. His critique of America’s obsession with whiteness (even going so far as to elect a Shirley Temple lookalike as president!) feels spot-on, but I was left wondering where the resistance was. Where were the Indigenous children? The black and brown children? The Latinx children? I understand Liu didn’t have the space to explore these questions in what is, actually, a book perfectly sized to tell the story it tells, but these are questions I am still wondering about now, over a week after finishing the book.

Overall, Supernova Era has only confirmed my appreciation for Liu’s work. It tells a tight story covering everything from the physics of a supernova to the political physics of war. I would highly recommend it, and I’ll be looking forward to more translations of his work into English..

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