Last year I read The Three-Body Problem, which you might recall ended up winning a little thing called the Hugo Award. Since then Liu Cixin’s sequels, already published in China, are making their way to English-speaking readers. The Dark Forest didn’t snag a nomination this year, but I still wanted to read it and discover what happens next in the Trisolaran crisis. As I learned in the first book, Liu is a writer of prodigious philosophical talent. His plots and characters attempt to engage with very thorny, complex issues of the human condition. However, the actual story is obviously subservient to these ideas. Once again, whether or not you enjoy this book will largely come down to your tolerance for “Big Idea” SF over interesting characters and stories.
Most immediately it’s obvious that this is a talky book. That’s not always a bad thing—plenty of books use primarily dialogue to drive the plot forward. In The Dark Forest, however, the dialogue often includes a great deal of exposition (whatever exposition isn’t included in the narration). So what you actually have are just a series of philosophical discussions between different talking heads representing slightly different points of view. I’m reminded a lot of Anathem, another novel very explicitly attempting to use science fiction to explore philosophy.
Liu is quite successful in portraying both how incredibly screwed humanity is and how we are very good at denying this fact. The truth is, if we as a species had to face our collective extinction at such a remove, we wouldn’t handle it half so well as they do in this book. Most people would probably ignore it (400 years from now? Pffft) or rationalize it away. Look at how many people don’t care about the consequences of global warming—one might argue an alien fleet is a more “obvious” threat, but when your only evidence is heavily moderated and the only visual confirmation comes from tracks in dust clouds, that threat starts to seem just as mythical as global warming seems to some. After the story jumps ahead two centuries to the midpoint between present-day and the Doomsday Battle, we see that denialism has indeed swept our species, manifesting now as over-confidence. And it’s here that Liu shows he’s not entirely devoid of wanting to deliver a good story: there is tension to this rejection of reality. You know it’s not going to end well; you know the incoming probe is going to wreck the fleet, but you don’t know how it will happen. You don’t know what the reaction or outcome will be. So there are some rewarding aspects.
This series is ultimately about presenting a solution to the Fermi Paradox and then exploring its implications for relations between humanity and the Trisolarans. The Three-Body Problem sets up the conflict: Trisolaris needs a new home, and Earth is the closest candidate. The fact that humans are already there is a minor detail they will have to overcome. The Dark Forest, whose title refers to Luo Ji’s proposed solution to the paradox, offers more insight on the nature of life in the cosmos. It is a curious mix of optimism and realism/pessimism about how we might react in the face of such crises. The darkest moments of the inadvertently Escapist spaceships are a stark reminder that, once we have left the protection of Earth and its atmosphere, life in space is so very fragile. Yet Luo seems very confident that there is a way to avoid conflict—with the Trisolarans, with other hypothetical alien life—if only the species work together hard enough. So there’s that.
Minute Physics did a video a while back about why we might, statistically, be looking for life in the wrong places. The arguments outlined in that video, while not the same as what Luo discusses in this book, make similar claims about the way we can use statistics to extrapolate about life in the cosmos. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. Both arguments sound sensible, and if Luo’s “dark forest” is chilling, that doesn’t make it any less likely. However, I always get wary when people start invoking the law of large numbers. There are a lot of assumptions to Luo’s cosmic sociology, and if even one of them is off, it could have a huge impact on his hypothesis. (I guess that’s why he performs his test first, so maybe I should give him some credit for being more scientific about it than some.)
I still have a hard time absorbing this sophon business and the other physics magic that Liu throws at us, and maybe that’s just making me ornery. Plus the whole Wallfacer/Wallbreaker nonsense is stupid, and it doesn’t matter that this is lampshaded. I suppose it has a kind of dramatic appeal, and I see the purpose it serves in the narrative. In a story about “what would humanity do if x” I can totally see countries using the threat as an excuse to stockpile hella-powerful nuclear weapons—but not that this plan would be instituted by a madman given near-absolute power by bureaucrats and politicians.
Things might have been different I had been able to identify with any of the characters. The closest thing we get to a main character is Luo Ji, but even he is a bit flat. I’m not surprised by this after reading The Three-Body Problem, but it doesn’t help given the otherwise dry and philosophical narrative. Even when the action really picks up in the final act, I just felt myself shrugging. There is too much Big Picture here. It might work as a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster—but they would gut the philosophy from it and recast everyone as American. (It would have just as few women as the book though!)
The Dark Forest is every bit as stimulating and thought-provoking as science fiction should be. It’s not especially captivating a story—even though the stakes are literally existential. This is an example of how attempts at ultra-realistic science fiction will often fall flat simple because the long timeline and utter unforgiving nature of space travel robs a great deal of the sense of urgency and forward motion we need in our narratives. Perhaps this is a human failing. Perhaps there is a species of slower-living aliens whose thought processes are ideal for stories about spaceflight. Maybe they will emerge victorious as the best hunters in the dark forest….