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Book Review: The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu

An alien invasion that takes a few centuries, and the Xanatos Gambits to stop them.

The Dark Forest

Tor, 2015, 512 pages

This near-future trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from Cixin Liu, China's most beloved science fiction author. In The Dark Forest, Earth is reeling from the revelation of a coming alien invasion - in just four centuries' time. The aliens' human collaborators may have been defeated, but the presence of the sophons, the subatomic particles that allow Trisolaris instant access to all human information, means that Earth's defense plans are totally exposed to the enemy. Only the human mind remains a secret. This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a daring plan that grants four men enormous resources to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from Earth and Trisolaris alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown. Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer and sociologist, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he's the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead.

This was an interesting and weird book, but it sometimes barely seemed to be a sequel to The Three-Body Problem.

The Dark Forest is another Big Ideas SF book. It spans centuries and involves a conflict between two civilizations that will literally engulf stars. Cixin Liu has obviously been influenced by the classic Western SF authors he's referred to in interviews - Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc. - and the second book in the trilogy is another grand galaxy-spanning plot governed by hard science. There is a bit more characterization in this book, whereas in the first book, the science and schemes were the story and the characters mostly just animations moving through it.

The Three-Body Problem ended with the Trisolaran invasion fleet heading to Earth from four light years away. Since their fleet is traveling at sub-light speed, that gives Earth several centuries to prepare. Defense plans are complicated by the fact that thanks to quantum communication, Earth is already monitored by omnipresent "sophons" that give the Trisolarans instant real-time intelligence on everything Earthlings do.

The one advantage humans have is that Trisolaran thoughts are transparent to one another, and thus they have a poor understanding of deception or hiding one's intentions. To them, to communicate is by definition to openly reveal all one's plans.

To prepare a defense that the Trisolarans can't anticipate, the UN institutes the "Wallfacer" project, in which four men are appointed to become Wallfacers. Given almost unlimited resources and authority, their jobs are to independently conceive and execute a plan to defend Earth without telling anyone what they're up to.

The writing style will strike readers as a bit odd; I think the translation from Chinese might not have been quite as good as the first book (which was translated by Chinese-American SF author Ken Liu). "Wallfacer," for example, is apparently the literal translation of the four men chosen to "face the wall" before them and figure out how to get past it, but as a term for the would-be saviors of mankind who must devise schemes to stop an alien invasion, "Wallfacer Project" just doesn't have the resonance in English that perhaps it does in Chinese.

The way in which people are described, in terms of infinitely nuanced facial expressions, emotions conveyed through mediums not often emphasized in the Western literary tradition, was notably different, as was the pacing and dialog. Cixin Liu is obviously a aficionado of Western science fiction (there are numerous call-outs to Western literature in the book), yet this novel had a different "flavor" in the same way that I've noticed Russian science fiction and fantasy novels (of which I've read a few) are also recognizably distinct in character.

The Wallfacer storylines are strange but interesting, requiring a lot of suspension of disbelief even if the physics behind their schemes seems somewhat plausible. They develop grand plans to launch super-megaton stellar hydrogen bombs or robot space fleets, each of which is eventually revealed to be a devious scheme within a scheme, all of them extraordinarily unlikely and yet logical. Opposing the Wallfacers are human collaborators, who create a "Wallbreaker" assigned to oppose each Wallfacer.

The primary protagonist of the book, Luo Ji, is a lazy, greedy, gambler and failed academic who, quite to his own shock and dismay, is made one of the Wallfacers. Naturally, he becomes the Wallfacer upon whom the survival of the human race will ultimately depend.

There are lots of recurring themes in The Dark Forest that only occurred to me later in the book, and more that will probably occur to me as I think about it some more. The way in which the very act of communicating can be a threat, for example, is revealed in the climax of the novel, where the title is also explained, and then you will realize how cleverly the author foreshadowed this in the first book.

The Dark Forest is an alien invasion story, a space opera with epic spaceship battles, a far future scientific romance, and here and there a bit of modern political allegory. I enjoyed it more than the first book, and I quite liked the first book. This is the second of a trilogy, and given how this volume ends, I am really not sure what to expect in the third book. But I'll be reading it soon.

Also by Cixin Liu: My review of The Three-Body Problem.

My complete list of book reviews.

My Book Reviews



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