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In Cixin Liu's 'Supernova Era,' the children really are our future

In Cixin Liu's sprawling, Hugo Award-winning Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, the acclaimed Chinese author played a multidimensional mind game that was complex enough to boggle even the most astute science-fiction reader.

His latest novel to be published in the United States, Supernova Era, was actually written years before the Remembrance books, and accordingly, it's far less ambitious in scale. Rather than tackling the astrophysics and metaphysics of the cosmos, this relatively compact, standalone book zooms in on a sociopolitical scenario that's sparked by a simple yet frightening premise: A nearby yet previously hidden star goes supernova, and its unleashed radiation kills everyone over the age of 13. Only children are left behind — and it's up to them to pick up the adults' tools and rebuild civilization. That is, if they're able to survive in the first place.

Liu renders the science behind this conceit clearly yet concisely, as if to get it out of the way early before its implausibility sinks in too deep. But that works, because the physics of this apocalyptic phenomenon is not the focus of the story. Instead of rigorously hard sci-fi like the Remembrance trilogy, Supernova Era dwells more on the characters. There's a raft of them, mostly belonging to a middle-school class in Beijing, and revolving around a boy named Huahua who finds himself at the center of earth-shattering events — not to mention the pressure to reassemble the world so that it not only regains its former functionality, but surpasses it in terms of moral mandate. The book embraces social satire, absurdly outlining a future where "human civilization has returned to its childhood, to a happy, civilized age. We have left the dreary ground and returned to the freedom of the trees, we have shrugged off the clothes of hypocrisy and grown luxurious down coats." If this sounds like Ursula K. Le Guin rewriting The Lord of the Flies for the quantum age, that's because it strongly comes across that way. And that's to its benefit.

Liu constructs a series of successively alarming struggles for Huahua and his generation to overcome, beyond the most profound trauma of being orphaned and left alone in a world without grownups, their know-how, and their discipline. The children succumb, for example, to rampant alcoholism and stage Olympian war games, even as they assume the roles of presidents and premieres in their attempt to right the sinking ship. Their astral backdrop is a constant reminder: The sky has been forever altered by the supernova, a constant reminder that they must view life in a radically different light if they are to persevere.

Liu began writing Supernova Era soon after the political uprising in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the book is suffused with a sense of calamity, tragedy, and swift social change. But rather than seeming preachy or parable-like, his story shines with an absorbing timelessness — thanks in large part to Joel Martinsen's smooth and spirited translation. The book's main flaw is its overreliance on omniscient narration, which too often leads to summarization and a kind of cold distance, although these things are easy to become acclimated to.

In a way, Supernova Era is both more satisfying and more frustrating than Remembrance of Earth's Past. What it lacks in sheer intergalactic scope it more than makes up for in winning characterization, stunning concepts, and a contemplative tone that provides vital insight into the formative years of one of the genre's masters. In Liu's hands, "the children are our future" becomes far more than a cozy cliché; it's a springboard for the kind of agile and relevant thought experiment that science fiction, at its best, manifests.

Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the new book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller

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