Supernova Era–Cixin Liu’s ambitious sci-fi novel of children leading the world arrives in English edition

Review by C.J. Bunce

To understand the scope of celebrated Chinese author Cixin Liu′s 2005 novel Supernova Era, finally available to Western audiences in an English translated edition by Joel Martinsen, it helps to look back to its influences, and those works published since its original publication in China.  At its core, this is a classic science fiction novel of the Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury school.  It’s a work of speculative fiction, at once arguably both optimistic and dystopian that reads almost like an alternate history in the vein of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.  Disturbing and horrifying at points, philosophical, and filled with global, international, and political intrigue, it’s also squarely a young adult title, featuring almost exclusively middle grade aged kids tasked with surviving an interstellar holocaust–the actual “supernova” of the title–that quickly fries the DNA of anyone older than the age of thirteen.  The solution?  In the face of their imminent deaths, the world’s adult leaders begin to select youth leadership based on the classic “model United Nations” competitions.  It’s a jarring, but ultimately interesting and clever mash-up of some great tropes of science fiction.

Since the initial publication of Supernova Era in China, we’ve seen parts of the story replayed–possibly even inspiring–many other genre works:  Only last year in we saw Jeff Lemire’s Sentient–a comic book series where the adults on a ship are killed in a sabotage leaving kids to run a spaceship.  Here, we follow two small groups of children, the cabinet who must lead China and the cabinet who leads the United States, without the help, advice, education, and other benefits of adults or adulthood, on a global stage.   At first, the children default to letting an Internet-like artificial intelligence computer–the Digital Domain–help keep society in order, something like the robot in last year’s Netflix movie, I Am Mother, where a computer system’s robotic surrogate fulfills all parental duties to children.

When the daily toil of work grinds the kids in the Supernova Era into a state of boredom, they reach out to a massively multi-player online roleplaying game (MMPORG) and begin to build their real lives around it, as we saw in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, Ready Player One, where a future society allows itself to give up life in the real world to become lost inside a virtual reality MMPORG.  And the world’s kid leadership ultimately decide they need to compete with other nations, creating a worldwide version of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 novel The Hunger Games (also inspired by Stephen King’s novel, The Running Man) with a society relying on a new world construct with quirky contrived, artificial new rules of survival, battling wars with gameboard rules to the death.  Were these authors aware of Liu’s internationally known and respected work?  Possibly, but it’s the earlier works that served at least in part as influences on Liu’s novel.

First and foremost is William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, featuring a group of British kids stranded on an island and their disastrous effort to govern themselves.  Liu has his characters reflect back on this novel specifically inside his story as a cautionary tale.  In an afterword Liu claims his novel’s first draft was penned as early as 1975, but his story relies too much on technology of the 21st century for that to be entirely true.  In his novel’s development Liu most likely would have been also aware of the equally improbable, unlikely, and allegorical 1982 graphic novel Snowpiercer by French writers Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand, featuring all of society crammed inside a train on a frozen earth, possessing the entirety of society’s economic classes in conflict.  As much as the novel is intelligent speculative science fiction, it also becomes absurd in a manner similar to Snowpiercer, especially in its third act, a Platonic parable of sorts recounting the kid rulers playing a real-life game of Axis & Allies or Risk with real military tanks, ships, jets, and infantry.

Orson Scott Card would tell another version of this kind of story in his 1985 science fiction novel Ender’s Game, where a group of adults appoint the best children to fight a real-life outer space battle against a foe, but only let the kids believe they are playing a game.  Supernova Era is all told in a diegetic form from the even more distant future in the style of David Brin’s 1985 novel The Postman, another account of individuals creating a new government after an apocalypse.   Liu begins and ends his story with a small school class of young people making decisions and leading the world in different segments of society, reuniting to partial success at story’s end as in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which followed young people dividing duties as citizens divided among intelligence, aerospace forces, and infantry battling an extraterrestrial threat.

Supernova Era is impressive in its ability to provoke ideas and discussion.  Decisions made by the children in Liu’s story can be frustrating and realistic.  The difference between Chinese and American children is very believable in Liu’s portrayal–yes, they are all kids, but even in twelve years children pick up so much of the traditions, dialogue, and social relationships from their parents, that many cultural distinctions are already established.  The point is often made in the story that the adults have no idea what decisions kids will eventually make and the dangers they will face having been handed over control of the military-industrial complex, nuclear weapons, and the agricultural systems, water resources, medical facilities and roles, security, and all other jobs of every strata.

So much has already changed since 2005, the book could use an update.  No doubt kids who are 12 and 13 years old today can operate and navigate the Internet, social media, and MMPORGs far more easily than they would have 15 years ago.  Upon the deaths of the last adults the kids become helpless, yet one could envision kids today getting by at least at first by asking Google or Siri for help.  Yet none of this detracts from the impact of the story.

Supernova Era will evoke the above noted science fiction novels and their authors.  It is an intriguing work of speculative science fiction that has a compelling, educational element in its design.  Cixin Liu is widely regarded by world leaders past and present as a favorite author, and his previously translated works have already made him a bestseller in the U.S.  Supernova Era is now available in hardcover here and Kindle here at Amazon, with a paperback edition from Tor Books available for pre-order here at Amazon.

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