The Supernova Era by Cixin Liu (translated by Joel Martinsen) Head of Zeus 4/5 stars The Supernova Era by Chinese sci-fi giant Cixin Liu begins with a group of students expressing their ambitions. One boy wants to be a general; a girl wants to be a doctor, like her mother. Huahua, one of the novel’s three heroes, isn’t sure what he wants to be, just as long as he’s “the best”. Xiaomeng, whose melancholy maturity is the inverse of Huahua’s exuberant optimism, declares with characteristic realism that her family’s lack of funds means she will probably go to vocational high school. “Specs”, the final side of our triangle, speaks more abstractly. “No one knows what the future holds. It’s unpredictable. Anything could happen,” he says, before delivering a small lecture on chaos theory. We don’t need Specs’ philosophical caveat to sense that something devastating is afoot. The novel begins with two ominous past tenses: “In those days, Earth was a planet in space. In those days, Beijing was a city on Earth.” Besides, this is a novel by arguably the world’s leading science-fiction writer, thanks to his already classic Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, and as his many fans already know, Liu specialises in end-of-the-world scenarios. One promptly arrives, although “promptly” is measured by cosmic history. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the “Dead Star” collapsed, emitting a torrent of energy. Centuries later, that torrent reaches Earth, turning night into day and unleashing environmental shock waves, only to recede as quickly as it appeared into a faint rose light that is christened, with disarming lyricism, the “Rose Nebula”. Tragically for humankind, its consequence is not yet recognised. Every person on Earth has been exposed to lethal levels of radiation, capable of penetrating deep into the planet’s core. The only good news (although “good” as measured in a “Supernova” context) is that carbon-based life forms aged 13 years and below have cells supple enough to regenerate, heal and survive. That leaves humankind with less than a year to teach youngsters how to run the planet: “Earth would become a children’s world.” The lessons, which veer from tender to tetchy, include everything from politics to mail delivery, medicine to military tactics, driving cars to teaching itself. Suddenly the ambitions voiced in the prologue are no longer fantasies, but unavoidable reality. Having distinguished themselves at a hastily convened (and brilliantly rendered) war game, Huahua, Xiaomeng and Specs are among those handed the keys to China’s new kingdom. Released in Chinese in 2004, The Supernova Era is Liu’s first published novel, and the latest to make it into English, courtesy of Joel Martinsen’s excellent translation. It is so absorbing that readers would be forgiven for thinking it the work of the mature, confident and celebrated writer. This says something about the novel’s continued topicality. Whether one looks at Hong Kong’s current instability , the history of Communist China or the Brexit referendum, we are living in a time of renewed generational schisms, where established verities are crossing swords with new, transformative outlooks-in-progress. This battle encompasses just about every area of contemporary life: technology, religion, psychology, gender, nationality, economics, warfare, communication – you name it. But what makes The Supernova Era such an urgent, unqualified success 15 years after its release is Liu’s storytelling talent, which was apparently evident from the start. Having distilled the manifold aspects of China’s generation gap into one definitive event, its ramifications – like that of the Supernova itself – persist and multiply long after the adults depart the stage. That the children challenge the social, political and economic structures handed down to them seems entirely natural. It is all too easy to find real-world parallels, whether in the environmental catastrophe succeeding generations will inherit or in the legacy of widening economic inequality created by our love affair with unchecked capitalism. Liu is particularly good at evoking the short-term loss, loneliness and panic that erupts after the final grown-up dies. He thin-slices the start of the Supernova era into tense minutes and hours, as China’s children grieve, collapse and adjust, roughly in that order. Stability is achieved, in part thanks to the relatively clear heads of our trio of leaders, but also because of Big Quantum, not a supercomputer so much as a super-duper-supercomputer, capable of making tens of millions of pacifying phone calls simultaneously, logging the replies and analysing the data. Big Quantum plays a vital role in the Supernova era, whose most significant geographic terrain is the Digital Domain. A network of broadband computers, it enables vital services to operate and, almost as importantly, creates a space for China’s juvenile population to calm down, interact and form communities. The most important of these is New World , a cross between Second Life and Minecraft , whose 200 million users turn it into a virtual representation of China as a whole. Thanks to Big Quantum, this digitised nation is (dis)embodied as the “Virtual Citizen”, who can summarise the many opinions of its many constituents into concise statements, which also reveal what percentage of the population share that belief. So, when the Virtual Citizen informs China’s leaders “We want a world of fun”, the declaration carries an intimidatingly high 96.314 per cent approval rating. It turns out a prototype for the planet-as-amusement-arcade has already been road-tested within the cyber-confines of New World: a fairy-tale place of candy buildings, vast skyscrapers with rocket lifts, ice cream mountains, giant video games, zoos the size of countries, and a roller-coaster connecting Beijing and Shanghai. It is the cautious, pragmatic Xiaomeng who points out the pitfalls of constructing a world that deviates so sharply from the sensible five-year plan laid out by their parents. “We think the adults’ five-year plan is boring,” the Virtual Citizen fires back. Specs’ criticisms prove more profound. “This is a violation not only of the laws of economics but of science as well,” he announces, before asking whether candy is strong enough to make buildings. Fissures open within the infantile population, as epicurean idealists do battle with realists who argue that humans cannot live on ice cream mountains alone. The debate descends into name-calling: the realists are “pretend adults”, the hedonists “ignorant babies”, who nevertheless desert their posts and gorge on fun, which with no adult in attendance is in plentiful supply. “This was the most carefree time in all human history, and the entire country turned into a pleasure garden of juvenile overindulgence.” The Supernova Era is an extraordinary novel, debut or otherwise. Continually thrilling, engaging and thought-provoking, its base matter of dystopian commonplaces (apocalypse, a world of children, pleasure domes) is transformed into impressive gold nuggets: meditations on childhood, family, time, history, technology, war and so on. This begs a big question: how exactly do we read The Supernova Era ? Is it an allegory of Communist China, something Specs promotes when he describes the young population taking whatever resources they want as “primitive communism”, albeit heedless of the means of production. The novel’s emphasis on youth brings to mind the Cultural Revolution and how Mao Zedong’s fledgling Red Guards battered their reactionary elders. Or is the novel a satire, on political power above all? Liu wrote The Supernova Era long before Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, Boris Johnson and Xi Jinping turned puerile name-calling into political capital, which only makes the portrait of global summits degenerating into tantrums, sulks and endless bickering feel all the more prophetic. What lends these ideas such force is how Liu tethers them to deeply felt emotions. The Supernova Era is founded on loss, grief and despair, and Liu never loses sight of the fact that his cast are frightened children struggling to understand the responsibilities thrust upon them. One can forgive the survivors for seeking solace in online dreams and unrealisable plans. After all, what exactly makes their reality so amazing? That the children question and challenge the social, political and economic structures handed down to them also seems entirely natural. It is all too easy to find real-world parallels, whether in the environmental catastrophe succeeding generations will inherit or in the legacy of widening economic inequality created by our love affair with unchecked, unregulated capitalism. This proposes the heart of Liu’s novel: the potential and perils of play. While it is easy to mock the children’s fun-packed planet as impractical, impracticable and downright dangerous, it is just as perilous to ignore the innovative aspects of such daydreaming. What the adolescent leaders lack in experience, they make up for in energy, enthusiasm and imagination unfettered by existing restraints. Then again, as the horrors of the Cultural Revolution or Khmer Rouge remind us, political, legal and economic structures exist for a reason, no matter how unfair we feel them to be. In this, the fictional world of The Supernova Era reads like play given narrative form: an imaginative space where Liu can explore the fluid possibilities of human existence, our potential for good and evil, for freedom and constraint, for love and hatred, for petulance and commonsense. What we do with the results is entirely up to us.