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.

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