This year I’ve decided I need to catch up on some of the big science fiction classics and recent acclaimed series. The Three Body Problem has sat on my mental bookshelf ever since I first heard of it, and I was afraid I’d be too dumb to understand it. Upon reading it, however, I had a similar reaction to another of our reviewers (Andrew), in that certain aspects of the story really stood out to me, while a lot of the book felt like it was rushing to the second book in the series. Cixin Liu, as translated by Ken Liu, did a great job synthesizing the history of the cultural revolution in China with the events of his book and some big time physics concepts. But the dialogue and overall story I found a little lacking. Naturally, venturing into The Dark Forest, (this time translated by Joel Martinsen) I was apprehensive about what I might find, and holy hell, was I unprepared for Cixin Liu’s sophomore effort.
The Dark Forest picks up almost where Three Body left off, but different characters are at the forefront. First contact has been made with the Trisolarans, and while their fleet is 4.2 light years away, and their arrival 400 years in the future, the world is in panic mode. Remnants of the group that asked them to come to Earth to wipe out humanity are being slowly hunted down. The U.N., upon learning that the aliens don’t have inner thoughts, develop the Wallfacer program and select four individuals to create secret long term plans to counter the Trisolaran threat. Three of the men have backgrounds you would expect, coming from governmental and military organizations, while the fourth is XXXX, a man who happened to fall in love with a fictional character of his own making. They are to divulge none of their real plans to anyone so that the Trisolarans will not be able to predict their moves while given free reign over the resources of the planet. The hopes of the world rest on these men’s shoulders as they plan and cryogenically freeze themselves during long stretches of research. Unfortunately, the Trisolarans enlist the aid of four wallbreakers, those who would destroy their plans.
The Dark Forest is a remarkable step up from the storytelling of The Three-Body Problem. Liu shifts focus to the individuals wrapped up within the story, especially when it comes to the Wallfacers. He still manages an engrossing plot, decked out with explanations of scientific theories about the universe, but the people weren’t as bloodless and cold as they were in Three-Body Problem. I wouldn’t say they were all good people you could root for, but they had some oomph to them that made me want to see where they were headed. Their individual plans were astonishing, and the hustle and bustle Liu guides you through creates a sense of mystery, while dropping enough hints for the reader to guess. Liu created a sense of unease as each wallfacer’s plan spun out of its initial ideas, building the dread of when the wallbreaker might come crashing through. At times there was inevitability to it all, but each reveal still carried a weight to it.
There were two characters who really sold the story for me. First there is Luo Ji’s story, since he didn’t fit in with the other Wallfacers I felt drawn to him. He was an astronomer who once proposed a set of axioms for space faring civilizations, but he was mostly forgotten. He takes a hedonistic turn, using his powers as Wallfacer to concoct wild schemes that may or may not be a part of his plan. There were several times throughout his story that I felt the weight of his burden and how small events in his life might inform what he plans to do. It was a very human look at how someone not informed by military or technological progress might engage with such a task. However, the most compelling character to me was Zhang Beihai, a captain in the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy that takes on the task of constructing a space navy. While not a Wallfacer, he had the conviction necessary to be one and went to extraordinary lengths to do what he felt was necessary. He was exciting to follow even though his goal was singular: faster than light space travel. His path was often a darker and more absurd one that heightened the centuries long drama. He was the reminder that some men walk a fine line between hope and despair.
The Dark Forest, while engaging and at moments fun and heartwarming, is a particularly dark book. Liu doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the threat involved, and the herculean task at hand. The Wallfacers are hard people, and their plans are equally terrifying to contemporary morals. Liu blurs the line of what is right and wrong, and doesn’t really deliver a “correct” answer; only the characters really speak to what is right and wrong in the end. The fact that there is a four hundred year countdown only exacerbates this foreboding atmosphere. It doesn’t help that triumph is dashed as swiftly as it is won, giving the whole of humanity a claustrophobic feel to it. It doesn’t feel unnecessarily dark though, it has an air of responsibility to it, as if Liu has a plan for it. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting to get the tasty morsels of those themes in this volume, you’ll have to wait for Death’s End. But Liu does tease it with some particularly beautiful scenes in the beginning and end of this volume.
The Dark Forest is exactly what a sequel should be. Liu expanded on his ideas from the first book, while also careening past them with even more wild ones. It’s a portrait of what isolation can do to individuals and how they in turn use it to create futures, futures we probably wouldn’t want for ourselves. It’s a scary and dark place, this universe we live in, and Liu finds ways to bring that fear home to encompass the people around us. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s hopeful, after all it’s still within the tunnel, and not a speck of light to guide those who wander down it.
Rating: The Dark Forest 8.5/10