In the Star Trek episode “Miri,” the Enterprise orbits a planet that’s an exact replica of Earth—except its inhabitants are creepy, violent kids. In Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, and Red Rising, creepy, violent kids—who, to be fair, didn’t start out that way—must slaughter each other to survive. From The Girl Who Owned a City to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, science fiction has no shortage of stories where kids inherit the world. Usually, an apocalypse is to blame; almost always, there’s blood.
In Cixin Liu’s Supernova Era, that apocalypse is, believe it or not, a supernova: A distant, ancient star whose violent demise provides a both light show for everyone on Earth and a crackling bath of what seems to be benign radiation. “The aurora soon covered the whole sky,” Liu writes of the catastrophe’s aftermath, “and for the next week, night skies across the whole world danced with red bands of light.”
Naturally, everything promptly becomes terrible, starting when scientists discover that all that radiation means everyone over the age of 13 only has months to live. That’s just enough time, world leaders figure, to transfer as much knowledge as they can to the planet’s most promising tweens—hoping, however desperately, that doing so will keep civilization running.
So the adults prepare the children—as well as they can, at least. China uses war games to train tykes for leadership positions. Just about everywhere, parents are tasked with teaching their kids how to take over their jobs. (Think “Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” except “Take Your Daughter To Work Day, Because She’ll Have To Do Your Job When You’re Dead.”) One lucky kiddo gets to learn how to run a power station. Another, whose mother is a surgeon, is brusquely guided through her first autopsy. “All jobs, not just being a doctor, require bravery. Some might be even tougher,” Mom tells her retching daughter. “You’ve got to grow up.”
To say much more about where Supernova Era heads would be to give too much away—but rest assured that yes, all the grown-ups die. Yes, kids inherit the Earth. And things go pretty well! Until they don’t!
Supernova Era was originally published in China in 2004. (Notably, it was written at a time when that country’s one-child policy was still in effect.) Only now, 15 years later, is the novel coming out in English, thanks to translator Joel Martinsen, who’s deftly adapted two other Liu works: Ball Lightning, which we reviewed last year, and The Dark Forest, the excellent second volume of Liu’s acclaimed Remembrance of Earth Past trilogy. 2004 is a good six years before Liu would publish that trilogy, and even with Martinsen’s smooth translation, Supernova Era can’t help but feel like an earlier, rougher work: looser and wobblier, it rambles more than it drives.
Thankfully, Supernova Era still has plenty of the big, clever, unexpected ideas that define Liu’s brain-bending work. Liu doesn’t think quite like anyone else’s—which is a good thing, considering this tale covers territory traveled by so many others. Liu’s vision stands apart: In most stories like these, children end up emulating, in one way or another, the world we currently live in, with the resulting stories serving more as allegories for or reflections on modern civilization than as examinations about what a society actually run by children would function. Supernova Era ducks and weaves—sometimes predictably, sometimes surprisingly—but when it works best, it’s when Liu commits to a simple thought experiment that has dramatic repercussions. Isn’t it more likely, Liu asks, that a society built by young children would look nothing at all like the civilization that’s been kept going by grown-ups, through millennia of inertia and selfishness? And, if such a new society were to evolve, what would it look like? (There’d be a lot more games, for one thing.)
Outside of Liu or Martinsen’s efforts, and a decade and a half after Supernova Era was written (and, at least as I write this, on the West Coast of America, about as far from China as you can get), its story carries some extra weight. Throughout Liu’s apocalypse and post-apocalypse, it’s hard to forget that in the real world, and unlike any other time in history, we’re seeing young people—many of whom are no older than Liu’s protagonists—fighting to influence the planet that will soon be theirs. Look at Greta Thunberg, addressing the UN; look at the Sunrise Movement, which has ensured that climate change and the Green New Deal are key parts of our political and ethical discourse. Inertia and selfishness continue to define our lives in too many ways—but in others, something new and better is within grasp.
It’s enough to make one think that maybe the children in Supernova Era—some of them creepy, some of them violent, and all of them creating a world unbeholden to what’s come before—might not be so different from the kids of today.
For old people, that’s probably a little bit frightening. For everyone else, it’s exciting.
Supernova Era is available now from Tor Books.
A writer and editor, Erik Henriksen lives in Portland, Oregon. Learn all you ever wanted to know and more at henriksenactual.com.