Like a lot of things right now, writing a review of The Supernova Era feels a bit surreal. The plot hinges on a cataclysmic event that changes the course of human history. Seeing as the world is going through its own cataclysm, reading the book becomes less an exercise in escapism and more a spot-the-difference game. It’s not the book’s fault, but it’s hard to delve into it without the mind drifting to the specter of COVID-19. Like the characters of The Supernova Era, humanity has to grapple with a world where many of things we have grown used to have been torn away. It already feels like we are living in a Cixin Liu novel.
What kicks off the titular supernova era is the death of a star hidden deep in the Milky Way. When the radiation from the dead star’s collapse reaches Earth, the end result is that everyone on Earth is left with only a few months to live … except for anyone thirteen years old or younger. Liu goes into loving detail about the dead star and its radiation and why only tweens and kids are able to survive its effect, but in the end it’s just a justification for the central conceit. A world without adults is a good hook and one that’s shown up again and again in SF, such as in the American young adult novel/required reading staple The Girl Who Owned a City, or taken to extremes with the brutal manga, Drifting Classroom. It keeps showing up because it’s one of those ideas that can be used to showcase whatever ideology/aspect of society the author wishes to explore.
Cixin Liu has always been an author whose work features big ideas—there’s a reason why both The Three Body Problem and The Dark Forest are named for thought experiments. The Supernova Era has plenty of philosophical and scientific musing, but it’s not as meaty as his previous works. I say previous, but that’s only if you go by their English release dates. The Supernova Era was originally published in Mandarin in 2004, The Three-Body Problem in 2008. The Supernova Era really does feel like an earlier work, one we are only getting now in English because we are late to the Cixin Liu party.
The first third of the book deals with the adults of the world quickly coming to terms with their impending collective death and dedicating themselves to preparing the children for a world with no grown-ups. The plan for this is to implement a hyperactive apprentice program where kids learn the trade of one of their parents. A woman who’s a surgeon must teach her daughter to get over her fear of blood so she can take up the scalpel. A mailman spends the last few months of his life teaching his son his letter-carrying route, a route the child will take over when the father passes away. This section, “The Great Learning,” has some of the best emotional beats of the book as the children struggle with their new tasks and as the adults patiently use their final days to teach them. One of my favourite scenes features a teacher showing her child how to grade papers:
“These kids are idiots. I’ve told them over and over but they still don’t get how to add and subtract two-digit numbers!” Su Liu angrily pushed aside a stack of workbooks.
Her mother said, “Every student understands things at a different pace.” She flipped through the papers. “See, this one doesn’t know how to carry. And this one, no concept of places. You’ve got to address them independently. Take a look at this one...” She handed Su Lin a workbook.
“Idiots! Plain idiots. They don’t even know simple arithmetic.” She glanced at the workbook but tossed it aside. Shakily scrawled numbers formed lines of two-digit addition and subtraction problems, all of them making the same stupid mistakes she had grown tired of over the past two days.
“It’s your own workbook from five years ago.”… Her mother said, “A teacher has to have patience for hard work.” She sighed. “But your students are the fortunate ones. *What about you? Who’s going to teach you?” (p. 65)
It’s interesting seeing the adults break down their jobs into easily digestible pieces for children—there’s one detailed segment that clearly draws on Liu’s experience as a power plant engineer. But for all its thoroughness, it also seems too easy. The adults are united in passing on the world and their knowledge to the children. There are no dissenters, no adults caving in to despair. But while this is simplistic, it is also heartening. There’s a repeating theme of people coming together for the collective good in Liu’s work, whether it be humanity deciding to live or die as a species in The Dark Forest, or the effort in The Supernova Era to make sure humanity survives even without adult supervision. Humanity can survive, the sentiment goes, but only if everyone does their part (as, for example, in the wake of a highly contagious virus, washing your hands often, staying home, and looking out for the more vulnerable people in your community).
One thing that reads oddly in this section is that all the characters seem to be either adults or kids. There are no teenagers, no surly fourteen-years-old complaining about the fact that they just happened to be a few months past the safety line. This is not a book that is interested in the emotional aftermath of the whole planet suddenly being orphaned. When the adults pass away, there is panic and as time passes the children wish for a return to the past, but this yearning is never depicted as them missing their mothers and fathers. Rather it’s a collective wish to return to a time when adults took care of everything.
The children’s world chugs along for a while with kids carrying out their assigned duties, but it’s only a matter of time before things falls apart. The Supernova Era isn’t a long or dense book, so it is amazing how much Liu manages to fit in: the adults dying out, a super-computer designed to assist China’s new leaders, a virtual world which leads to new forums for citizens to express their desires, and finally a breakdown of society as children abandon their posts and play all day.
But China is hardly alone in this. In America, children have gotten their hands on a whole host of weapons and have started playing deadly games in the streets. Nations around the world are stagnating and the children left in charge are in danger of losing control of things completely. And so, Chester Vaughn, a chilly child prodigy and the USA’s calculating Secretary of State, has an idea: war games.
This idea lurches the book into a section that feels like the one Cixin Liu was itching to write the whole time. The children assemble their armies on Antarctica where they will all take part in a deadly Olympics featuring tanks, missiles, grenades, and machine guns. The tone of The Supernova Era is hard to pin down, and when the war games begin it veers sharply into dark humor. The children spend about ten pages lovingly going over the specs of their different weapons and hashing out what “events” will take place. When Huahua, one of the Chinese leaders, suggests an event featuring landmines, the American president Davey says disdainfully “Fine, give the kindergartners something to play” with (p. 243).
The children’s callousness towards life is brought up in a conversation between Huahua, Specs (one of the other Chinese leaders), and the Chinese general Lü Gang. Specs suggests, “It takes a lengthy process of life experience to truly appreciate the value of life.” (pp. 228–29). I’m certainly not going to argue that kids aren’t cruel, but the kids in The Supernova Era don’t even seem to fear death.
The war games also change the tone of the book in that children actually start getting hurt and even dying. One of the things that strains credibility in the first couple hundred pages is that seemingly all the children in China survive the birth of this new epoch. It feels a little bit like Cixin Liu is treating his young characters with, well, kid gloves. It’s as if he is afraid of writing scenes of kids, say, dying as the nuclear power plant they’ve been left in charge of melts down (this does not happen in the book but is exactly the type of thing you expect would happen if you left a bunch of pre-teens in charge).
But once the war games start, all bets are off. Children die horribly—there’s a tank battle that is tremendously well done in terms of how visceral it is, and a chilling “cold weapons” battle where one side makes use of attack dogs. yet despite how harrowing these individual pieces are, there’s a lack of weight to the whole thing. Even when America and China start targeting each other’s bases, a taboo move that results in numerous deaths, there are no grudges held, no personal animosity. The world leaders are discussing things in the next scene as if nothing had happened.
The Antarctic games conclude with no one the winner and the world begins to seek out yet another distraction. Once again, it is Vaughn who comes up with an idea: his proposal is one of the most exciting ideas in the whole book and I don’t want to spoil it here. We don’t get to see the result of Vaughn’s idea, which is fine—the reader can imagine for themselves the many ways that it could possibly play out.
The book ends with an epilogue from the “author”—not Cixin Liu but the fictional author, a historian looking back at the start of the Supernova Era. He defends his book’s unusual approach to the subject, saying that he knows it straddles the line between non-fiction and narrative. He admits that both his partner and book agents say it’s “a waster of energy. Too fringe to be proper history, and too realistic to be fiction” (p.337). The epilogue is delightfully tongue-in-cheek: Cixin Liu gets a few jabs in at himself and makes his daughter a character in the book’s universe. It also goes a long way to explaining the weird style of the book, how for long stretches it reads like non-fiction, or how conversations have the feel of recreation rather than authenticity. If this book had been bookended with a foreword and epilogue from the book’s fictional author, that framing device might have gone a long way towards better setting up the reader’s expectations.
Another thing that skewers expectations is the marketing. Both Tor and House of Zeus (the UK publisher) seem keen to sell the book to Cixin Liu’s fanbase, consisting of adults who read The Three-Body Problem and its sequels (they even trot out the same Obama blurb used on nearly every Liu book cover). But those same adult readers will be disappointed by how straightforward this book is. I think Tor missed a chance to pitch this book to younger sci-fi readers—there’s a reason why these types of stories (“the adults are gone and children rule the world”) are usually aimed at children. They can project themselves into the story more easily than adults can—it is a fantasy for them, not us.
That said, it’s hard to imagine children being able to relate to any of the kids in this book. I have a thirteen-year-old brother, one who is quick to mock me any time I do anything that marks me as an aging millennial. I have never heard him or any of his friends talk like the kids here. Nearly every bit of dialogue sounds stilled and even archaic. Some examples:
“You’re mocking me, General Lü! I can’t permit this! I won’t!” (p. 236)
“You shameless pack of pissants!” (p. 277)
“Your adults were a bunch of scoundrels to leave you with strategic nuclear weapons.” (p. 277)
I don’t know if this is an intentional style choice on Liu’s part or what, but it is distracting. Yet, I still suspect that Liu did in fact write this book with kids in mind. At the very least, he wrote it with one kid in mind: the book is dedicated to his daughter, Liu Jing: For my daughter Liu Jing. May she live in a world of fun. Even this dedication is a bit puzzling. “Fun” in the supernova era is a double-edged sword. It can be the metaphorical perpetual motion machine that propels the kids to make a new and better world, but it can also lead to playing war games in Antarctica. A “fun” world is often a scary one.
For all its faults, The Supernova Era is a hopeful book, one that suggests that humanity can not only overcome devastating shifts in society but, in adapting to the new world, create something better. There are worse things to read during a pandemic.