Review: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

23168817Translated by Joel Martinsen

Liu Cixin is one of my favourite authors today for quite a few reasons, and so I was particularly excited when he was awarded the Hugo for best novel for The Three Body Problem.

I’d pre-ordered the Dark Forest from my local genre book store but then, due to a store closure for a few weeks in August ended up not being able to start it until Sunday the 30th.

As a result this review is somewhat later than I would have hoped. But it was a book worth waiting for.

I’ll follow the same pattern I did for my review of the Three Body Problem, providing a spoiler free review at the top with a section dealing with any spoilery material that I feel warrants discussion below a sizable gap.

Thesis Fiction

Liu Cixin writes thesis fiction. By this I means, he starts his stories by quite clearly and overtly stating some concept or idea which the novel will elaborate on and attempt to provide evidence for. What follows will then be very thematically controlled in order to support that proposition as specifically as possible. Everything in the book is subordinate to that purpose.

In The Three Body Problem this thesis shouted back to one of the earliest novels, a work which was also thesis fiction, by suggesting an inevitable cycle of chaos and order within civilization, and, like The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, showing us a civilization in the dying days of one of those times of order and prosperity, just before a collapse into a period of chaos.

The Dark Forest begins with a prologue before the events of The Three Body Problem in which a somewhat dissolute scholar Luo Ji meets with Ye Wenjie, a key antagonist of the first book, and is given a puzzle. This puzzle, a brief parable of an ant and a spider, and the contents of a conversation in the first chapter create the overall thematic structure of the book: an exploration of the boundaries between communication and miscommunication, specifically positing that as the distance between agents grows, whether that distance is one of culture, time or space, the possibility of meaningful communication diminishes, and where communication fails, mistrust flourishes.

The Wallfacers

Exploring this problem with communication, Cixin returns to the first book’s most bizarre technological conceit: the sophon. These sub-atomic AIs watch everything, reporting on the progress and plans of every human of note to their Trisolarian masters. They can access any computer, break any encryption. There is only one place safe from the Sophon’s baleful gaze: the mind. And so four people are officially tasked with creating devious and mazelike strategies to overcome the Trisolarian threat. A fifth takes it upon himself to do so.

The four chosen: an American diplomat, a Venezuelan president (proposed as the successor to Hugo Chavez), a British neurologist, and Luo Ji – still dissolute and a bit of a failure as a scholar.

The fifth is a Chinese political officer in the newly created space force.

It is worth noting at this point that one of the small problems I had with The Dark Forest was the lack of a Ye Wenjie character in this story. This occurs on two levels: first in that the women in this book are all not much more than sketches, the book is dominated by men in a way the previous was not. Second, the book lacks a cohesive singular antagonist. The Wallfacers (excepting Luo Ji) each have a Wallbreaker, an ETO member assigned to reveal their ultimate plans, but none of these characters have any real depth, and most only ever appear in three scenes of the book.

The Wallfacers are tasked with an almost impossible problem: they are kept at a distance from society, denied the ability to meaningfully communicate, while simultaneously being given the power to do basically whatever they want.

The relationship between these men and the world occupies the first half of the book.

The second half deals mostly with Luo Ji and the Chinese political cadre. Each has become thorougly isolated in almost every meaningful way, and yet each believes he might know the answer to saving humanity. The book then does a dance, allowing us to see their actions, and to hear what they say they believe while never allowing us access to their secret hearts.

We’re then asked to trust that these two deeply flawed men might save the species.

The Dark Forest is a bit messier than The Three Body Problem. This comes from two issues: the first is that the story takes place over a much longer timeline than the first. There are massive global changes happening throughout and keeping up with the world building alone can sometimes prove a struggle, especially as Liu constantly tosses more and more scientific weirdness at us.

The second issue is that while Martinsen is a talented translator, and his book, if anything, captures the cadence and structural feel of Chinese writing more than Ken Liu’s polished lines, he’s just ultimately not quite as strong as Liu.

Had Martinsen been translating from the beginning and did every book this probably wouldn’t have come up. He’s still a good translator. But Liu is such an exceptional translator that anybody, even someone as talented as Martinsen, seems weaker by comparison.

Despite this messiness, it still manages to be a strong work of thesis fiction. Cixin wears some of his influences on his sleeve (Asimov, the original king of thesis SF is very much an influence, and the way Liu handles broad sweeping societal change is strongly reminiscent of the original Foundation trilogy, while references to Luo Guanzhong, who was so central to the themes of the first book, remain evident).

I also suspect Liu has read Gao Xingjiang as a large section of Luo Ji’s early story seems very reminiscent in style and tone to Soul Mountain (translated by Mabel Lee).

The story ends very abruptly. To the point where I almost felt a need to flip back a few chapters and see whether I missed something somewhere. However the nature of the ending is appropriate and satisfying. Liu manages to walk the fine line between inevitability and surprise.

It’s hard for a second book in a trilogy to live up to the first. To a certain extent it has to tread some water, move the story from point A to point B with as little disruption as possible. Liu throws this model out the window; and never seems to be hovering in place or filling time.

Ultimately this book isn’t as strong as The Three Body Problem, but it remains a perfectly good sequel to an amazing novel, and I am still excited to see how it all ends.

Spoiler Review

Much like The Three Body Problem, this is another book which is hard to review without spoilers. But for a different reason. In the first book it was because the technology was so integral to the story. In this one it’s because of the Wallfacers schemes.

Each Wallfacer, separated from Humanity, faces an existential crisis and each is broken in his own way by it. The American diplomat, focusing on the fleets of the human forces, decides that the human belief in the sanctity of life will be the ultimate undoing of all. He plans a remote-controlled fleet of nuclear kamikaze pilots and prepares to turn them against the human fleet itself as a form of psychological warfare. When his lack of trust in humanity is revealed he commits suicide.

The Venezuelan president hides his own plans behind a carefully cultivated mask of crudeness. Meanwhile he plots to build a nuclear arsenal capable of throwing Mercury into the sun, an action which would slowly but inexorably destroy the whole solar system, with the intended aim of blackmailing the Trisolarians into a surrender.

He’s so globally reviled for this, due to the lack of trust anybody has at the idea of one person having the power to destroy the entire solar system, that he’s stoned to death by his own people, who he previously led through a successful war against the United States.

The neuropsychologist originally claims he wants to enhance human intelligence, but secretly he’s working on mind control. He succeeds in creating a system, and then uses it to create a hidden clique in the military who believe human defeat is inevitable, escape the only option.

But nobody on Earth will countenance an escape that doesn’t have room for anybody. At various times escape plans are treated as crimes against humanity. Other times mobs shoot down any ship they believe is being prepared to escape. And the Battle in Darkness proves they’re probably right.

The Battle in Darkness

The political officer has been secretly preparing to send a seed of Humanity into the cosmos since the beginning of the crisis. He realizes early on that nobody will ever agree to this and so he prepares the circumstances in secret, assassinating and manipulating in order to get a situation where he is momentarily in control of a spacecraft capable of interstellar flight.

A single Trisolarian probe destroys nearly all of the Human fleet in battle, and he uses the opportunity to convince the remnants to flee.

But they realize that resources are low, not all of the ships will survive the trip.

Human ships promptly turn on each other, until only two remain, travelling in opposite directions. Their occupants severed forever from humanity.

And then there is Luo Ji.

He uses his power to acquire an isolated mansion, to find a wife who is like a character he once wrote in a book. He tries to live a care-free life and does… nothing.

Except he might be playing the longest game of all. Because he’s slowly solving the puzzle Ye Wenjie put before him – the puzzle of “Cosmic Sociology.”

The Axioms of Cosmic Sociology

  1. The principle requirement of any civilization is survival.
  2. Life always expands while the amount of matter in the universe is finite.

Chains of Suspicion

Coming out of these two axioms are the chains of suspicion. A civilization can never be aware if another civilization is benign or malicious without revealing their location.

If they do so and the civilization is benign all is well but if they do so and it’s malicious, they have signed their doom.

A civilization that does not know of the location of another may come to in time. Even if a civilization is far ahead in technology, they may not remain so since technological progress is not a slow steady process but rather an explosion of exponential growth. To leave another civilization uncontacted is to court death.

But any contact is also to court death.

And so the universe is a dark forest, each civilization a lone hunter pushing back branches, always prepared to ambush any other hunter who reveals his position.

Luo Ji realizes this, and with this knowledge curses another star, some 50 light years away, transmitting a map of its precise location to the universe. After an interregnum of 150 years the star is destroyed. But nobody notices for a long time because:

Communication is attenuated by time

The Trisolarians might have near instantaneous communication across interstellar distance, but for the humans any attempt at communication is affected by the passage of time. While this is true in the relativistic sense, it’s also true for the protagonists who are put into hibernation, awakening 200 years into the future.

They arrive in a false utopia of underground cities, flying cars, compassionate humanist government and confidence in an assured victory over the Trisolarians. All their concerns and plans from the past are ignored or brushed off. Oh, well that was so long ago, their descendants say, and all the best laid plans are ignored.

So of course, when it all comes crashing down due to the havoc caused by the Trisolarian probe and the Battle in Darkness which follows, the characters must scramble to try and drag together support for their plans or at least somebody to listen.

And then Luo Ji finally figures out how to win.

In extremis communication is the only thing that can work

He presents an image of a person in despair, throwing himself into a fantasy. The probe has prevented using the sun as an antenna for interstellar communication and nine more are coming to crush humanity. Luo Ji digs into work creating dust clouds throughout the solar system to locate the probes, an early warning system.

He uses the dead-man switch designs of another dead wallfacer and carefully positions the clouds so that when they’re deployed they will, through the flickering of the sun they cause, communicate a simple message: here we are.

The Trisolarians can’t return home, but if Luo Ji dies the solar system will fall just as quickly as the star he previously cursed. He demands to speak to them, finally turning the ever-present sophons to human advantage (it only took two whole books for someone to think of that) and he forces a complete capitulation from the Trisolarians. The invasion is averted, the sophon block on technology lifted. The Trisolarians share their technologies with the humans and redirect their ships so that they will need human help to reach the solar system and some hope of survival.

All through talking.

Without a shot fired.

The war is won.

Humanity and Trisolaris are both aware that they are children in the Dark Forest of the solar system. Luo Ji, like his predecessor who was stoned to death, held the survival of both species in his hand, and said, if one dies, so do we all. He stripped away the barriers of deception that surrounded the Wallfacer project, and revealed in a single moment his only sincere wish: survival for all.

And so he overcomes the Trisolarians.

Of course, there are some loose ends.

The Trisolarian fleet passed through several dust clouds travelling between Alpha Centauri and Sol. Their passage may have been remarked. The sun was used as an antenna to transmit into the galaxy not once but twice. Somebody else may be paying attention for signs of another hunter stalking the bushes.

And of course, though the humans and the Trisolarians are now locked together in bonds of mutually assured destruction stronger than the chains of suspicion that govern cosmic sociology, there’s no guarantee that this will be a stable alliance. In fact, previous exeperience (previous volumes in the series) predict it cannot be.

The Dark Forest is not a perfect book. It suffers from a lack of women. It suffers from a lack of a compelling villain, since the main conflict in this is simply between protagonists and their ability to meaningfully communicate. It struggles with a good translator who remains just not quite as good as the one who came before him.

But it is a very good book. It takes the question: can trust exist without communication, and picks it apart, examines it from a dozen angles and answers, ultimately, no.

Then it says, and here’s all kinds of reasons we fail to communicate. And this makes the universe a terrifying place where we are vulnerable children.

And it works.

Ken Liu returns to translate Death’s End, which comes out in January 2016. I’m excited to see how this whole thing comes to a close and I’m curious to see what Liu Cixin’s ultimate thesis will be. I wonder if he’ll combine the proposals of the first two into a synthesis or whether the third book will be some other grand pronouncement.

Recommendation: Read this book if you like:

  • Political SF
  • Chinese modernist fiction
  • Books that will try to blow your mind
  • Cosmic horror
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One thought on “Review: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

  1. Pingback: Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest Review Round-Up | Chaos Horizon

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