BOOK REVIEW: The Supernova Era, by Cixin Liu

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Translator: Joel Martinsen

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Genre: Social SF

Pages: 442

Publication Date: 22/10/2019 (this translation)

Rating: 5/5

Eight light years away, a star has gone supernova. The radiation burns across the Earth, giving every human being a lethal dose. Every human, that is, over the age of thirteen. It is these children who will inherit the earth, but what will this new era look like . .?

Head of Zeus is rapidly rising through the ranks to become one of my favourite publishers, and this book is a prime example of why. Just a quick glance at their back catalogue will reveal a hint of how much amazing science fiction China has to offer, and Head of Zeus are championing those translators who bring these wonders to the English-speaking world. With translators like Joel Martinsen and Ken Liu at the helm, it’s rare they go wrong, and The Supernova Era may just be my favourite translated work this side of The Dark Forest.

The Supernova Era starts off with billions of people dying of radiation poisoning, so it’s no surprise that this can be a very bleak book. The opening acts chronicling the desperate attempts of adults to train their children are rather depressing to read, yet also inspiring in the united approach the world takes to its fate. It’s not until the adults are out of the picture that old divisions raise their heads. The darkest part of the book is unquestionably the children’s efforts to bring back the Olympic Games. These scenes are bloody, brutal and at times downright horrific. But it’s impossible to look away, because Liu’s slow and measured chronicling of this future history is never anything less than absolutely gripping.

Once you look past the darkness on the surface, though you have to do some digging, this is ultimately a book about hope. Even when things fall apart, it’s clear that the world is not going to end. At the end of every tunnel, there is a light, and the world of the children is slowly approaching it. Scattered throughout the narrative are snippets of memoir and interviews, looking back on the events of the book and hinting at the world still to come. These snippets never spoil, but boy do they tease. This optimism is, fittingly, filled with childish charm, from the heart-tugging early struggles to the genius of the National Assembly and Candytown.

There are characters in this book, and they go through the same struggles and journeys that you’d expect of any protagonist. really though, this is not a character-driven story. Indeed, it’s not so much a story in the traditional sense as a thought experiment writ large. This is a wonderful thing, and exactly what I like my SF to be. Like the Golden Age of American SF, Chinese science fiction is in a very good place right now, with a bit of something for everyone.

Much as I love Ken Liu’s writing, I think Martinsen has him beaten as a translator. Having read Cixin Liu translated by both men, I have to say that Martinsen’s prose is more page-turning. Flawlessly readable to an English reader while losing none of the simple elegance of Liu’s original writing. The few footnotes throughout are as helpful and informative as ever, without interrupting the main body of the story.

If you only have the chance to read one translated work this year, make it this one.The Supernova Era is an experience you will neither forget nor regret.

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