Humanity prepares for a looming life-or-death struggle against a superior foe in Cixin Liu’s ‘The Dark Forest’

March 10, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 10, 2020

Author’s note: Beginning in the second paragraph, this post has spoilers for the novel The Three-Body Problem; these were inescapable in discussing the book’s sequel. MEM

Chinese writer Cixin Liu made a splash at home and abroad with his novel The Three-Body Problem, which originally was published in serial form starting in 2006 before appearing in an English-language translation in 2014. The Dark Forest, the second volume in the trilogy, was published in English the following year, with Joel Martinson replacing Ken Liu as translator.

The sequel opens with a prologue set during the action of the first novel but soon forges ahead into new territory. At a moment in the first half of the 21st century, all humanity has been alerted to the threat of the Trisolarans, an advanced alien civilization that evolved around a nearby solar system despite radical temperature swings caused by exposure to the system’s multiple suns. The Trisolarans have launched an invasion fleet; it’s purpose is to eradicate Homo sapiens and install their own species on our very hospitable planet.

Humanity has ample preparation time, since the aliens will need centuries to reach Earth. But that edge is severely blunted because our enemies have sophons. These essentially invisible and massless multidimensional particles allow the Trisolarans to hear or see anything and everything, even though they’re physically separated from Earth by more than four light-years. The sophons, which can hold conversations with willing human collaborators, were responsible for blocking the progress of scientific research in a strange plot that the protagonists of the earlier book were able to uncover.

(This leads to a major plot hole I see in The Dark Forest: Why don’t the sophons impede human efforts to assemble a fleet to battle the Trisolarans by, say, sabotaging military factories? Liu never addresses this seeming oversight.)

Liu’s main characters this time around are a brilliant playboy astronomer and an elite Chinese naval officer assigned to his nation’s space force; both are appointed to senior positions in the defense initiative. The scientist, Luo Ji, is vested with extraordinarily wide-ranging powers at a meeting in which the United Nations secretary speaks at length. The following excerpt contains about half of her declaration:

“Humanity still has secrets, in the inner world that each of us possesses. The sophons can understand human language, and they can read printed texts and information on every kind of computer storage media at ultrahigh speeds, but they can’t read human thoughts. So long as we do not communicate with the outside world, every individual keeps things secret forever from the sophons. This is the basis of the Wallfacer Project.

“At its heart, the project consists of selecting a group of people to formulate and direct strategic plans. They will develop their plans entirely in their own minds, with no communication of any kind with the outside world. The true strategy of these plans, the necessary steps for completion, and the ultimate aims will remain hidden inside the brain. We shall call them the Wallfacers because that ancient Eastern name for meditators mirrors the unique characteristics of their work. As they direct the execution of their strategic plans, the thoughts and behaviors these Wallfacers present to the outside world will be entirely false, a carefully crafted mélange of disguise, misdirection, and deception. The subject of this misdirection and deception will be the entire world, both enemy and ally, until a huge bewildering maze of illusions is erected to make the enemy lose its judgment, and to delay as long as possible the moment it works out our true strategic intent.

“These Wallfacers will be granted extensive powers that will enable them to mobilize and exploit a portion of Earth’s existing military resources. As they carry out their strategic plans, the Wallfacers need not make any explanation for their actions and commands, regardless of how incomprehensible their behavior may be. Monitoring and control of the Wallfacer activity will be undertaken by the UN Planetary Defense Council, the sole institution granted the authority to veto Wallfacer commands under the UN Wallfacer Act.”

Luo Ji, who was a little off-kilter to begin with, soon finds himself (mis)using United Nations resources to assemble an estate that he dubs his personal Garden of Eden. He even enlists Shi Qiang, the maverick Beijing cop who’s the only character from The Three-Body Problem to play a significant role here, to find the lover that Luo imagined accompanying him on a halcyon road trip.

The astronomer is not humanity’s only hope. But as the Trisolarans foil one would-be savior after another, whatever crazy scheme the astronomer might or might not be concocting becomes increasingly vital.

Various characters enter hibernation, allowing the action to skip ahead by years and even centuries. Liu offers an interesting vision of the future and depicts a major (albeit somewhat silly) space battle. But the bulk of The Dark Forest concerns itself with developments on Earth as the planet braces for an alien invasion. Like many brilliant ideas, it’s a simple twist on a familiar topic — both novel and yet so obvious that one wonders why no one’s tried this before.

Liu has an Asimovian intellect, wide-ranging and capable of explaining complex scientific concepts in easy-to-understand prose. Unfortunately, he also shares one of Asimov’s biggest flaws as a fiction writer: Both struggle to create three-dimensional characters who command the reader’s empathy. It helps matters not at all that the naval officer who serves as a counterpoint to Luo is, in an apparent sop to Chinese nationalism, the ultimate soldier, embodying an unyielding martial spirit.

Ultimately, The Dark Forest emerges as a fascinating science-fiction novel but only a serviceable novel. I’m going to read the conclusion to this trilogy, but I can’t recommend either of its first two legs to anyone who isn’t already a committed science-fiction fan.

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