Supernova Era: A disturbing vision of a world of children

Supernova Era by Cixin LiuSupernova Era by Cixin LiuSupernova Era by Cixin Liu

Chinese science fiction author Cixin Liu has had a successful career in China for many years, winning China’s prestigious Galaxy Award nine times. But it wasn’t until 2014, when his 2007 novel The Three-Body Problem was first published in English, that he became well-known outside of Asia. Since then, some of his earlier novels, like Ball Lightning (originally published in China in 2004), have been translated and published in English. Supernova Era (2019, originally published in 2003 in Chinese, but written even earlier, in 1989) is one of Liu’s earliest works. a stand-alone novel in which a natural disaster leaves the children of Earth alone and in charge of everything, from transportation to weapons of mass destruction.

Sometime in the near future, a massive star only eight light years away from Earth, previously hidden from our view by a cloud of cosmic dust, explodes into a supernova. When the high-energy particles and electromagnetic radiation from the so-called Dead Star hit Earth eight years later, it briefly lights up the entire sky before leaving behind a rosette-shaped nebula that can be seen day and night. It also leaves a dose of radiation that, humans soon figure out, has irreversibly damaged the chromosomes of all humans over the age of thirteen, who will die in ten to twelve months. But in younger children and, apparently, all plants and animals, the damaged chromosomes will repair themselves and there will be no short- or long-term ill effects.

The first chapter of Supernova Era, which relates all of the scientific details relating to the supernova, is the only real hard science portion of the novel. The remainder is a social science novel, exploring the ways in which societies and individuals react to the pending death of all the older teens and adults, desperately trying to pass on their knowledge and skills to the children, and the events that occur — and their effects on various nation’s societies and on our world generally — once the adults have died and the children are in charge.

In fact, the hard science underlying Supernova Era is improbable, if not impossible, and difficult to swallow. A near-Earth supernova would in fact be disastrous, but the likely effects would be severe damage to the ozone layer, our atmosphere, and the ocean. This is the first and largest of the novel’s improbabilities that you just need to roll with, and I had a difficult time with it. I’d be reading along and every so often my brain would interrupt my reading to ask, what about all the animals? Why aren’t there any mutations? Aren’t children’s cells actually MORE susceptible to radiation damage than adults’? (Yes, in fact they are.) But I believe the real answer is, Liu just wanted to tell a story where children have to take over the running of society, worldwide. And with that story he succeeds quite well.

In many ways Supernova Era is an allegorical type of tale. It was inspired, per Liu’s afterword, by the Tiananmen Square protests in June of 1989 and by a dream he had that same night of children marching to war under a blinding blue light. Liu compares humanity to orphans who are unable to find their parents’ hands, groping in the “endless darkness of the cosmos.” Despite a (perhaps unwarranted) optimistic conclusion, much of Supernova Era is quite grim. War is treated like an Olympic contest, with a motto of “Sharper, Fiercer, Deadlier,” a result of our videogame-influenced age. The children who lead nations display the stereotypical weaknesses of their culture: Americans are violent and inclined to escalate conflict; the Vietnamese prime minister proposes that the war games include a “guerrilla war” contest (he’s voted down by the other nations’ representatives); Japanese children kill whales indiscriminately, using depth charges.

Supernova Era lacks the intense creativity of The Three-Body Problem and is a more typical science fiction tale. It was early days yet in Liu’s writing career, and that shows. On the positive side, if you had difficulty following the REMEMBRANCE OF EARTH’S PAST trilogy, this one is much easier to comprehend. Liu spins an interesting tale here, with ample food for thought.

Published in China in 2003. English edition published in October 2019. In those days, Earth was a planet in space. In those days, Beijing was a city on Earth. On this night, history as known to humanity came to an end. Eight light years away, a star has died, creating a supernova event that showers Earth in deadly levels of radiation. Within a year, everyone over the age of thirteen will die. And so the countdown begins. Parents apprentice their children and try to pass on the knowledge needed to keep the world running. But when the world is theirs, the last generation may not want to continue the legacy left to them. And in shaping the future however they want, will the children usher in an era of bright beginnings or final mistakes?

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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