Desiring to be monstrous in Clive Barker’s Cabal

Cabal is a book about sex.

Every character in the book thinks about sex. A lot. Lori is concerned about her sex life with Boone. Boone worries he can’t please Lori. Eigerman is comforted by cartoons of sodomy on the toilet wall and comforted that they stay safely cartoons on a wall. Ashbery is terrified that people will find out about his paraphilia for women’s underwear. Decker gets hard when he murders. At the climax of the book, Boone, well, the text can speak for itself here:

"Baphomet's head. It turned to him, vast and white, its symmetry fabulous. His entire body rose to it: gaze, spittle, and prick. His congealed blood liquefied like a saint's relic and began to run. His testicles tightened; sperm ran up his cock. He ejaculated into the flame, pearls of semen carried up past his eyes to touch the Baptizer's face."

So yeah, the climax of the book involves one of our protagonists ejaculating into the face of a god. Cabal is a book about sex. Everybody, at least everybody with a remotely human viewpoint, is thinking about sex all the time, and honestly nobody is very happy about it. Lori and Boone are a good couple but can’t make it work in the bedroom. He usually ends up crying over his inadequacy. Eigerman wants his sodomy carefully abstracted. Ashbery is terrified of his secret being found out, and keeping his secret from being found out is Decker’s whole motivation. Decker’s twin desires for the little death to be reflected in an orgy of vast, grand death, but not to be seen to be a sexual being drives the entire plot of the story.

But Cabal isn’t about sex. Not entirely. Not if you plumb its depths. In 1988, the same year Cabal was published, Clive Barker said, “What I like to write is ‘iceberg’ literature. Most of it is below the surface, and you produce things that don’t explain everything.” And Cabal is, in some ways like an iceberg. I read Cabal when I was in my early twenties. At the time I was still deeply closeted about my bisexuality, and the wild, kaleidoscopic world of Midian was a thrilling and illicit fantasy. I read it then as a book about sex and was satisfied to see it that way.

When I picked up Cabal now, two decades later, I said to a friend of mine that I thought I’d grasped Cabal the first time but what I’d really done was just make a fist in the ocean. This book has depths. But this book is a map. This book wants you to explore its depths, much in the same way Lori explores Midian, a layer at a time, each time being seduced deeper. Each time making the choice to be seduced.

Cabal is a book about infection

I mean it’s not like it’s the first time a horror author wrote about infection. That risk, that the Other could get inside you and make you not who you were is central to horror at least as far back as Lovecraft. And 1988 was right in the heart of the first wave of the AIDS crisis. Back then, heterosexual transmission of HIV was still uncommon in the UK, but gay people had been dying of AIDS for a few years and it was on a few minds.

Cabal is an openly queer book with sex on its mind and particularly with the idea of sex as a source of shame on its mind; it shouldn’t be surprising that the idea of infection was bubbling in Cabal. The Nightbreed pass their dark gifts with a bite – the balm. If you are bitten by one of the Nightbreed, you can survive the experience. I mean you may not – the Nightbreed are monsters and, in their hunger, can be terribly savage, but Boone does. He takes a bite and he flees and he lives. Until he’s shot and dies. And upon death the balm awakens the infant monster to their true life. The book is never clear if this is the only way one can become a Nightbreed. We might shudder to consider Rachel and Babette. Rachel, the gentle, vampire-like monster who shows Lori kindness could be somebody who was given the balm, but what do we make of Babette? Was Rachel’s daughter killed with her? Or was she born to her? The book never tells us.

But the balm is not the only way infection is referenced in the book. Because there’s another thing that seems to be catching.

Cabal is a book about madness

Boone is schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He has intrusive thoughts. He suffers shame and guilt about his illness, depression tagging along with his schizophrenia. Boone’ psychologist, Decker, is also somebody with some deep psychological pathologies. Decker is a serial killer, a sociopath and a social chameleon. He’s not actually a doctor; he just stole a name and an expensive suit. He told lies that opened doors and let him exploit vulnerable people. Decker, who cuts out the eyes of his victims because he cannot bear the thought of being seen devoid of his masks (the mask he wears when about the murder is in fact his real face) sees in Boone a valuable victim of a different sort from his usual. And so he plies Boone with drugs, hypnotherapy and shocking images, and persuades the vulnerable, ill, man that he is a killer. That he has psychically blocked his own crimes out of an inability to face his monstrosity. This is, of course, transference. Decker is the one who is uncomfortable being put in the position of his own monstrosity. He is the one who hides behind masks behind masks behind masks in order to stay pure. Boone, in counterpoint, wears his heart on his sleeve. He thinks he’s too broken to be a good boyfriend for Lori.

Boone’s need to be emotionally sincere doesn’t extend just to his presentation; he is awash in very human pain and it leads to his failed suicide attempt. And you know, it’s interesting because at times Cabal tells us Nightbreed are made by infection, by the balm. But Boone throws himself in front of a truck and gets up afterward. He then hitch-hikes and walks from Calgary to the middle of nowhere. (Midian is described as being “North of Athabasca, east of Peace River, near Shere Neck and north of Dwyer.” While some of these places are invented, others are real locations in Alberta and they situate Midian as being somewhere perhaps in the vicinity of the Wabasca lakes, seven hours north and deep in the bush. There are few places in the world more remote.) So perhaps being Nightbreed is more than being bitten.

This fits with the descriptions of Midian provided when Boone first meets Narcisse. And when Narcisse cuts his own face off, Boone thinks he sees the flesh underneath transform. He’s a deeply unreliable perspective so we can’t be sure, but we never see one of the Nightbreed give Narcisse the balm, yet there he is in Midian when the action kicks off.

Perhaps being Nightbreed depends on a certain kind of mimetic infection. Cabal describes Midian first as a talisman of the mad, saying, “some belonged to the collective mind. they were words he would hear more than once: nonsense rhymes whose rhythms kept the pain at bay, names of gods.

Among them Midian.”

Early in the story, Decker describes Boone’s hypnotherapy sessions and says that Boone is confessing to, “something so abhorrent to you even in a trance you couldn’t bring yourself to say it.” It’s easy to treat this as a lie. Decker lies. Decker is a deeply unreliable character in this book, but then no character is reliable. Cabal shows us every one of its perspective characters facing moments where their senses clearly fail them and we, as readers, know that their perceptions cannot be trusted.

So if all our characters are unreliable, is it not possible that the germ of the Nightbreed lies in insanity?

This would certainly fit for Lori’s arc. Lori, the beautiful. Lori, the empathetic. Lori, the unwell.

Lori can’t look at herself in a mirror. Barker deploys an excellent bit of prose to describe her:

Her neck was too thick, her face too thin, her eyes too large, her nose too small. In essence she was one excess upon another and any attempt on her part to undo the damage merely exacerbated it. Her hair, which she grew long to cover the sins of her neck, was so luxuriant and so dark her face looked sickly in its frame. Her mouth, which was her mother's mouth to the last flute, was naturally, even indecently red, but taming its color with a pale lipstick merely made her eyes look vaster and more vulnerable than ever. 

It wasn't that the sum of her features was unattractive. She'd had more than her share of men at her feet. No, the trouble was she didn't look the way that she felt. It was a sweet face. And she wasn't sweet, didn't want to be sweet, or thought of as sweet.

So here we have our lovers, beautiful, Byronic Boone who suffers his demons, his voices and codes, driving him toward Midian. And we have Lori. Boone promises her, “I’ll never leave you,” but he knows he’ll break that promise, and he does. He is, after all a haunted man. He is aware that there is something monstrous within him, something that wants to come out and that tortures him.

And Lori, for her part, is uncomfortable in her own body. She has a sweet face but she doesn’t think she’s sweet. She loves a vulnerable madman, and almost restores him to health before the exploitative void that is Decker sends him crashing down again. And when Boone leaves her, when he vanishes to Midian, she goes chasing after him. This is an irrational choice. She is putting off work to go traipsing into the bush of northern Alberta. It’s almost codependent – Boone was wracked with guilt, and one of the things that he felt guilt about was how dependent he was on Lori; she was the entirety of his fragile support system. He never noticed how dependent she was on him. Lori feels deeply alienated from the world. She needs Boone’s otherness.

When she learns that Boone has been killed in a ghost town, that he’s believed to be a serial killer who terrorized Alberta, murdered people indiscriminately, cutting them to ribbons and ripping out their eyes in their own homes, she goes to the graveyard adjacent where he died and mourns. But she brings a companion who isn’t comfortable in this eerie situation, and leaves, reluctantly. She gets a motel room so she can stay nearby while she decides her next moves, and her friend leaves her alone.

The people in the room next to her are having a party (later Decker will murder them all) and Lori becomes excited at the thinness of the wall, the idea that she is almost in public as she walks around her motel room naked out of the shower. She masturbates and falls asleep, having a sort of semi-prophetic dream.

"In sleep she was at Midian's Necropolis, the wind coming to meet her down its avenues from all directions at once - north, south, east and west - chilling her as it whipped her hair above her head and ran up inside her blouse.

The wind was not invisible. It had a texture as though it carried a weight of dust, the motes steadily gumming up her eyes and sealing her nose, finding its way into her underwear and up into her body by those routes too. 

It was only as the dust blinded her completely that she realized what it was - the remains of the dead, the ancient dead, blown on contrary winds from pyramids and mausoleums, from vaults and dolmen, charnel houses and crematoria. Coffin dust and human ash and bone pounded to bits, all blown to Midian and catching at the crossroads.

She felt the dead inside her. Behind her lids, in her throat, carried up toward her womb. And despite the chill and the fury of the four storms, she had no fear of them, nor desire to expel them. They sought her warmth and her womanliness. She would not reject them."

The dream proceeds on as she demands Boone of the dead, and they refuse to surrender him. The dream becomes a nightmare. Sheryl wakes her. And despite this nightmare, this idea that Midian will bring the dead into her, that it will deny her Boone even so, she does the irrational thing and returns to Midian.

Lori doesn’t appear sane. When she later reappears with Boone, she puts herself in the position of the willing lover of a cannibal and a monster. Over and over again, she returns to sites of mortal peril. She seems driven by an unquenchable death wish.

This madness seems contagious. Decker drives Boone into relapse and Boone’s madness infects Lori. When Decker, Boone and Lori bring the insanity of their situation to Shere Neck, Eigerman rapidly goes off the deep end, emptying out his police precinct, mustering an irregular posse, threatening the local priest along, anything to purge the Nightbreed. It’s insane: tunnel vision taken to an extreme. Eigerman is irrational. The chief symptom seems to be an excited death drive. Boone attempts suicide. Narcisse can’t wait for his afterlife to begin. Decker and Eigerman desire slaughter. And Lori wants to be with the dead.

Death fascinates Lori. Or it does for a while. Because while she may seem to be possessed by a mad death drive, Cabal isn’t precisely a book about madness. It doesn’t matter that people are uncomfortable being sexual, that they lust for what they should not, that their lust bring them shame. And it doesn’t matter that Boone’s bite, after he is transformed, is infectious, nor does it matter that Boone is himself transformed by infection. We don’t know for certain every person who becomes a Nightbreed is bitten by another but one thing we know for certain is that every person who becomes a Nightbreed is compelled to go to Midian for one reason or another. Narcisse is so desperate to go to Midian that he mutilates himself to reveal to the Nightbreed that he is already one of them. Narcisse wants to go to Midian so that he can belong. Boone mostly seemed to crave Midian as a refuge, somewhere to be left alone by a world that was cruel to him. But he still craved Midian and went there. And when he arrived, “he found himself a bed out of sight between two graves and lay his head down. The spring growth of grass smelled sweet.” Lori, too, is drawn to Midian, if only to take Boone away from it. This compulsion is irrational, but it isn’t madness. It’s desire.

Cabal is a book about desiring to be other

Desire exists in so many forms throughout Cabal. Boone desires solace. Lori desires Boone. Decker wants to kill. Eigerman wants notoriety. Narcisse craves community. The Nightbreed want peace. It isn’t unusual for a story to center around a protagonist who announces a desire and pursues it. What separates Nightbreed is the ubiquity with which the omniscient narrator makes it clear that every person in the story moves toward the thing they want. Even in flight, Boone is reaching out for what he desires. Even when she knows it’s self-destructive, Lori seeks out what she desires with single-minded intensity. And Decker has to kill. But for Lori, Boone and Narcisse, the deepest desire is to reconcile the otherness they feel, the sense they have of alienation from the world of people, the cravings and urges that seem unusual with a sense of who they really are.

They need to transform. And the Nightbreed are transformation. Lori falls out of love with death. She barely escapes Decker at a burned out restaurant, and he murders her traveling companion, Sheryl. She goes back. She has some idea that she can find evidence to prove Decker is the murderer. Instead what she finds is a host of flies feasting on the corpse of her friend.

"Both mind and body failed. The cloud of flies came at her, their numbers now so large they were a darkness unto themselves. Dimly she realized that such a multiplicity was impossible and that her mind in its confusion was creating this terror. But the thought was too far from her to keep the madness at bay; her reason reached for it, and reached, but the cloud was upon her now. She felt their feet on her arms and face, leaving trails of whatever they'd been dabbling in: Sheryl's blood, Sheryl's bile, Sheryl's sweat and tears. There were so many of them they could not all find flesh to occupy, so they began to force their way between her lips and crawl up her nostrils and across her eyes.

Once, in a dream of Midian, hadn't the dead come as dust, from all four corners of the world? And hadn't she stood in the middle of the storm - caressed, eroded, and been happy to know that the dead were on the wind? Now came the companion dream: horror to the splendor of the first. A world of flies to match the world of dust, a world of incomprehension and blindness, of the dead without burial, and without a wind to carry them away. Only flies to feast on them, to lie in them and make more flies."

Lori has already encountered the Nightbreed a few times before this; but this moment gives her the desire not just to live at peace with the existence of monsters in the world, but to collaborate with them. Lori is pushed far beyond the limits of her sensation and returns with newfound purpose. It’s a religious experience.

The Nightbreed fascinate Lori. She sees in them an alternative to, “the stench of creeping decay, the inevitability of it all.” She thought she was possessed by a drive to be occupied by the dead, and she is, in fact, occupied by the dead when Babette forms a psychic bond that lets them telepathically communicate across distances, that lets them see through each other’s eyes. Babette is the dead wind within her, filling her up, but Babette isn’t a wind; she’s a child, a young, vital child.

That vitality is what Lori sees in the Nightbreed: “the monsters of Midian – transforming, rearranging, ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s – seemed full of possibility.” This is enticing to Lori, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin. At one point, she is taken into Midian and allowed to explore it while Boone seeks the blessing of Baphomet, the god of the Nightbreed. She sees the Nightbreed in all their monstrousness, their horror and beauty. She sees a painter with the head of a dog and a bloated man covered in glowing maggots. She sees creatures with metal parts, and chimera. And what Lori sees in the Nightbreed is something she never before realized how much she wanted.

All that she coveted or envied in others of her species now seemed valueless. Dreams of the perfected anatomy - the soap opera face, the centerfold body - had distracted her with promises of true happiness. Empty promises. Flesh could not keep its glamour, or eyes their sheen. They would go to nothing soon.

But the monsters were forever. Part of her forbidden self. Her dark, transforming midnight self. She longed to be numbered among them.

Lori doesn’t crave extinction; she craves monstrousness. The Nightbreed aren’t sweet. Some of them are beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the angels in the Old Testament, a fury of sensation that overwhelms with its beauty. Most are hideous, deformed, bestial and sometimes broken. When the perspective, shortly thereafter, moves to Boone, this is reinforced, “they were what the species he’d once belonged to could not bear to be.”

Barker wrote Cabal to be a book open to multiple interpretations. In some sense it’s a book about transformation, but it’s a book about desiring transformation specifically. Lori achieves her desire in the end. She pushes herself to the brink of death and an inch beyond to achieve her desire and to repeat Boone’s promise, “I’ll never leave you,” back to him. That Boone has transformed completely is nothing even remotely touching a deal-breaker because Lori, too wants to transform.

But to understand this desire, we also have to understand the manner in which the Nightbreed transform. In the course of the story we witness several sequences of transformation; and what is peculiar is that these moments of transformation are described much more clearly than the way the Nightbreed look in their transformed state.

At one point, we finally get something approaching a clear example of Boone’s transformed state:

"Part the beast he'd inherited from Peloquin, part a shade warrior, like Lylesburg, part Boone the lunatic, content with his visions at last."

This description is nothing approaching an appearance. You can’t paint a picture of Boone. He looks like a beast perhaps, or like a shadow, or like himself only comfortable, at last, in his monstrous skin. And the descriptions of other Nightbreed are, with a few exceptions, either perfunctory, “a painter with the head of a dog” or are vague and impressionistic.

But the moments in which a Nightbreed changes from a human form to something else, when it reveals its nature as one of these, “ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh,” the vision becomes clear, detailed, lovingly crafted and entirely alien.

One of the best examples of this moment of clear and vivid transformation comes during Lori’s first encounter with the Nightbreed. She has come to the cemetery at Midian to feel closer to Boone and she finds an animal in a thicket. It seems sick, dying. There is a woman standing in a tomb who begs Lori to bring her the creature. This woman is described like a vampire, and when her hand touches the sun, it begins to dissolve into dust, much like the dead in Lori’s prophetic dream. Lori, being Lori, helps the woman and the small creature. The creature digs its claw into Lori’s breast, like an anxious kitten, but when she passes the threshold of the tomb and goes to return the creature to the vampiric woman:

The animal was changing before her eyes. In the luxury of slough and spasm it was losing its bestiality, but not by reordering its anatomy, but by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone - until what had been solid was a tumble of matter. Here was the origin of the bittersweet scent she'd met before the tree: the stuff of the beast's dissolution. In the moment it lost coherence, the matter was ready to be out of her grasp, but somehow the essence of the thing - it's will, perhaps, perhaps it's soul - drew it back from the business of remaking. The last part of the beast to melt was its claw, its disintegration sending a throb of pleasure through Lori's body.

This fluid plasticity is the hallmark of the transformation of the Nightbreed. In the moment of their transformations, they dissolve into droplets and liquid flows. They become disorganized, undifferentiated matter. Boone’s substance, when he transforms, is fluid. The Nightbreed, to Lori, seemed full of possibilities.

In 1947, Antonin Artaud put on a radio play called, To Have Done with the Judgment of God. Few figures loom larger in assessment of Barker’s early theatrical work than Artaud through his concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to use overwhelming sound and light to stun the audience, as well as creating a situation where the mise-en-scène was put before the script. This is iceberg theatre – it’s theatre that deliberately invites multiple interpretations. It is also very much in keeping with the ideas of another avant-garde artist and philosopher widely regarded as influential upon Barker in Georges Bataille. And we can see stark parallels between Lori’s experience, her death-drive in Cabal and Bataille’s description of ecstasy in Inner Experience:

"What is thereby found in deep obscurity is a keen desire to see when, in the face of this desire,
 everything slips away.

 But the desire for existence thus dissipated into night turns to an object of ecstasy. The desired spectacle, the object, in the expectation of which passion goes beyond itself, is the reason why "I could die for not  dying". This object grows dim and night is there: anguish binds me, it sears me, but this night which is  substituted for the object and now alone responds to my anticipation? Suddenly I know, I discover it in a  cry: it is not an object, it is IT I was waiting for."

Barker, like Bataille and Artaud, wants to shock the senses, to inspire ecstasy and to describe for his audience, people in the throes of this ecstasy. And it is via Artaud and Bataille that we must interpret how Barker describes the transformation of the Nightbreed.

In To Have Done with the Judgment of God, Artaud says:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.

And in their moment of transformation, the Nightbreed become a body without organs. What then is it? Artaud is unclear except to say that a body without organs represents a true freedom. This idea of the body without organs was elaborated upon by two other authors who were deeply influenced by Artaud. In their 1972 treatise, Anti-Oedipus Gilles Deuleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate upon the body without organs in depth, where they position it as the “third term in the linear series.”

A Deuleuzian metaphysics is one defined by difference. Being is composed of a series of machines, “The breast is a machine that produces milk and the mouth a machine coupled to it.” These machines represent flows and breaks. But as these produce, including producing production, including producing the desire to produce, they also tend toward decay. But these philosophers reject that this system of being can ever lead fully to nothingness. Nothing is ever gone completely and the dead become dust in the wind, become flies or even become monsters.

So our body without organs becomes that undifferentiated point which is the barrier at which the breakdown of the old and the arising of the new meet. It could be seen as an ambassador of tomorrow’s flesh and a reminder of yesterday’s. But it is neither. It is an undifferentiated fluid surface. “The desiring-machines attempt to break into the body without organs, and the body without organs repels them.” The body without organs constitutes, “a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed.” But as the body without organs gives rise to the mitochondrial machinery that make something an organic thing, a differentiated thing, it seems in its repulsion of desire as if it miraculates them. The universe becomes this push and pull between being, and desiring to be and ending, desiring to end.

In Cabal, this is the root desire of Lori and of Boone and of all the other misfits whose lives fall into the constantly dying and being reborn cosmology of Midian. This desire to fall back to the undifferentiated and to arise again, phoenix-like in some new form. To blossom and then to fall. As Bataille poetically put it,

 "Trees bristle the ground with a vast quantity of flowered shafts raised up to the sun.

 The trees that forcefully soar end up burned by lightning, chopped down, or uprooted. Returned to the ground, they come back up in another form." 

Boone and Lori destroy Midian. This isn’t their intention, Boone wants to be left alone. Lori wants Boone. But Boone and Lori attract the attention of Decker, and Decker, in turn, attracts the attention of Eigerman, who, for his part, cannot tolerate the presence of those who are everything his species could not bear to be. As a consequence of his destruction, Boone is granted the power to restore Midian and the obligation to do so.

There’s a thread running through Deuleuze and Bataille back to Nietzsche, that situates the origin of morality in debt. Deleuze and Guattari describe this as the force that transforms the socius (which we can treat as a special form of the body without organs). They describe it as being the origin of many things, but one of those is, “the pain of the initiations.”

Initiation is like a seduction through the layers of a necropolis. It brings you within by degrees. And it brings with it agony and the limit of the senses. But like seduction, and like becoming a Nightbreed, initiation is something we desire. We move toward our initiations and their agonies, knowing that they will bring us pain and desiring that pain. Boone and Lori seek out their debts. They become indebted to Midian because they desire it. They desire that constant breaking-down to the point of unmaking and reconstitution that is transformation, and in their transformation we see a template for understanding how a person might transform.

Transformation is like a seduction, like and initiation, it is the ecstasy of sensation that pushes us out of the rational and allows us to come back with knowledge, conviction and purpose. In Cabal, sex, death, shame, lust, revulsion, longing, fear and joy all tangle together like a mass of worms beneath the skin of the world or the mycelia of a colony of mushrooms. In order to be transformed we must first be unmade. Cabal teaches us this lesson well as first Narcisse, then Boone, then Lori are unmade and reconstituted transformed. They each, in their way, pursue those desiring machines within them along the path to breakdown, to the undifferentiated matter from which all new growth blooms, and then they arise again different, terrible, monstrous and alien.

The Nightbreed dance along the edge of the indescribable because they are everything that we can not bear to be. Much as Bataille’s ecstasy is like night falling, is a sensation akin to death, so to are the Nightbreed and therein lies their seductive appeal.

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