Review

Pushing boundaries in a world run by children

FICTION

SUPERNOVA ERA

By Liu Cixin

Translated by Joel Martinsen

Tor Books/ Paperback/ 348 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

In a flash of blinding light, a supernova showers the planet with radiation that deals irreversible damage to all human beings. Only children, whose chromosomes still retain the ability to repair themselves, will survive the event.

This is the premise of Chinese author Liu Cixin's Supernova Era, named after the new historical epoch in which children have inherited Earth.

In the novel, told from the Chinese point of view, adults gather at final assembly points where they will spend their last hours.

But before doing so, they take pains to transfer their skills and knowledge to their children. These episodes constitute some of the book's most poignant and moving moments.

In one scene, a trembling mother rattles off a list of instructions for her infant's new nannies before finally entrusting him to their care.

In another, a father on his way to the final assembly point fixes his eyes on the city lights that his son is now responsible for keeping on.

Originally published in 2004, this novel brims with the confidence and optimism of China as it was at the turn of the 21st century - a rising nation buoyed by its rapid economic success.

Even with the adults gone, a powerful supercomputer helps the nation's young leaders ensure day-to-day problems are taken care of.

The worst that China's children have to grapple with in this new era is boredom.

A sharp contrast is drawn with the United States, which is portrayed as a smoking apocalyptic wasteland in which every child is armed to the teeth and clamouring for access to military-grade weaponry.

Horrified by this state of affairs, the new secretary-general of the United Nations urges US leaders to put an end to the violence. But this cannot be done. "It'll give those Republican b******s an opening," the young vice-president explains. "Sir, we're a democratic country."

 
 
 

To which the apoplectic secretary-general responds: "A democratic country? I feel like I'm in some twisted pirates' den."

Large parts of the novel read like a thought experiment in which Liu pushes the boundaries of belief in describing how a world run by children would function.

But this also serves as a reminder to the reader, to re-examine the attitudes - for example, the pursuit of economic profit above nearly all else - that make up the structures of the world.

If you like this, read: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (Head of Zeus, 2015, $18.95, Books Kinokuniya), the first book in a science-fiction trilogy that won multiple awards.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2019, with the headline 'Pushing boundaries in a world run by children'. Print Edition | Subscribe