Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

This book was translated from its original Chinese by Joel Martinsen.

The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to The Three Body Problem and the second book of The  Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy. My commentary on the first novel is here.

Taking place in the years following The Three Body Problem, this book concerns itself with the coming alien invasion of Earth. The Trisolaran fleet is 450 years away from reaching the solar system. However, the governments of Earth, working together to deal with the threat, have serious problems. First, The ETO is an organization of humans who are working to assist the aliens. Second, the Trisolarans have managed to send subatomic particles called sophons to Earth ahead of the invasion force. Sophons are basically protons containing supercomputers. They are capable of shutting down all of humanity’s research into particle physics, thus stopping human technological progress at a certain point. This puts a limit on propulsion, weapons and computer technical advancement and means that humans will be unprepared to meet the Trisolaran fleet in the future. The sophons are also capable of spying on humans anywhere, thus allowing the aliens to know everything the humans are doing in their attempts to thwart the invasion.

In response, the governments of the world appoint individuals known as Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are people who are given unprecedented authority to coordinate resistance to the invasion. The Wallfacers work alone and do not communicate their plans to others, as the  sophons can eavesdrop on all communications and conversations. Thus, the Wallfacers plan alone, and they are expected to use subterfuge and work on massive diversions in order to hide their strategies from the Trisolarans.

Luo Ji is the main character in the book and a Wallfacer. Other Wallfacers include: Bill Hines, a former president of the European Union and a brilliant neuroscientst who plans to enhance and manipulate human intelligence to fight the Trisolarans; Frederick Tyler, a former American secretary of defense, who plans to fight the Trisolarans with a fleet of tiny spaceships; Manuel Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela, who plans to build massive nuclear weapons that can send planets off of their orbits to use in opposing the aliens.

There are many additional characters, including various members of humanity’s new space fleet. Zhang Beihai is a naval officer who joins the new space fleet and becomes instrumental in its development. Shi Qiang, the rough-around-the-edges detective from The Three Body Problem, is back. He plays a major part as Luo Ji’s protector.


Luo Ji is a fascinating character. Initially, he is chosen as a Wallfacer for inexplicable reasons. He is a mediocre scientist, a womanizer, he is corrupt and hedonistic. He initially tries to refuse the role. When refusal fails, he uses his position to live a life of luxury and excess and does nothing to formulate plans against the Trisolarans. Luo Ji’s behavior is initially taken for a ruse meant to fool the aliens into believing that he is doing nothing while really formulating plans against them. When authorities realize that he is actually just milking the system, they use coercion on him. This prompts him to take action that becomes a true threat to the Trisolarans who, it turns out, have always feared his potential.

As the plot advances, the various plans of the Wallfacers develop along with counter plans of the ETO and the aliens. Later on in the story, many of the main characters go into suspended animation to oversee the plans as they advance over the course of centuries. The depiction of Earth’s future is imaginative and intelligent. Eventually, the humans face a Trisolaran probe that enters the solar system. Everything comes to a head as an enormous fleet of Earth’s spaceships goes to confront it.

This is a serious work of science fiction. Though some of the science seems farfetched, it is mostly based upon real principles. While things like sophons probably could not exist in real life, they are based upon actual theories and at least educated speculation. Future depictions of advances in suspended animation and spaceflight are depicted in scientific literate ways.

There are also references in this book to various science-fiction novels and films, including works by Isaac Asimov and Author C. Clarke. There are references to the writings of Carl Sagan. The plot and themes are also reminiscent of the works of these and other writers. This book, like The Three Body Problem, is a treat for fans of older science fiction as well as those who are interested in science and technology.

There are strong humanistic and positive themes here. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that the universe is filled with advanced civilizations. Due to the need to survive and compete for resources, civilizations are quick to destroy other civilizations in order to eliminate threats and competition. Hence, the “Dark Forest” of the title. The dark nature of the universe is further illustrated when several Earth starships begin a joint, multi-generation journey out into the galaxy in order to escape the alien invasion. Crews of two of the ships murder the crews of the other ships in order to obtain fuel and spare parts. These actions are presented as the only possible way that the ships will be able to reach their destinations. The picture of a very bleak universe and existence is painted here.

However, better tendencies of intelligent life begin to shine through. At one point, a Trisolaran who has attempted to save humanity from destruction speaks to Luo Ji about a future universe that is based upon love as opposed to genocidal survival of the fittest.

“I only wish to discuss with you one possibility: Perhaps seeds of love are present in other places in the universe. We ought to encourage them to sprout and grow.”

Luo Ji replies,

"“That’s a goal worth taking risks for…I have a dream that one day brilliant sunlight will illuminate the dark forest.”

The sun was setting. Now only its tip was exposed beyond the distant mountains, as if the mountaintop was inset with a dazzling gemstone. Like the grass, the child running in the distance was bathed in the golden sunset."

The above seems to encapsulate what are ultimately positive motifs embodied in this novel."

There are also anti-totalitarian themes contained here. As the narrative takes place over centuries, long term trends in human history are fair game for the author.  Both right wing and left wing totalitarian regimes and solutions are shown to be harmful to humanity. Collectivization under strong governments is initially tried on a worldwide basis in order to mobilize human society against the aliens. This leads to catastrophe. Famine and social decay are the result. Eventually, a more open system brings world prosperity and a real chance to oppose the Trisolarans.

I am always hesitant to label a sequel superior to the original. However, as compared to The Three Body Problem, this book has a more interesting plot, more focused themes and more nuanced characters. I think that this novel is better.  With that, it may make more sense to consider The Three Body Problem and this book as one work. The first book ended without a resolution to the alien invasion threat. Though this book is the second in a trilogy, this novel seems to have wrapped up the entire story very neatly. In a way, these two works together make up a single, strong science-fiction story that is worthwhile reading for fans of the genre. This work really does not work as a standalone. It only makes sense as a follow up to The Three Body Problem.

In terms of plot, technology and science, it is a superb book. The characters are interesting and some show complexity. As I mention above, I think that readers of the first book would do well to continue on to this one. I have one more book, Death's End, in the series to go. I am very much looking forward to it.

35 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

I was thinking it sounded like Asimov, when i read your comparison... i'll have to read this trilogy but only after i finish the Manifold series by Stephen Baxter. i'm almost finished "Space" and it's plot is quite similar to "Dark Forest"... i won't spoil it, but i'll just say i'm rather amazed by this book and will certainly read the other two, "Origin" and "Time"... your post is just great in lending the reader an excellent idea of what the trilogy is like... tx...

Violet said...

Science Fiction is not my thing at all, but I remember there was a big buzz around the first book in this series. I'm glad you enjoyed reading Cixin Liu so much; his translator must have done an excellent job!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I would only recamend this to folks of the genre. I read something from someone who read the books in Chinese and English. He wrote that the English translators actually made the books more literary and that the original style was very flat.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Mudpuddle - I just Googled The Manifold books. They sound great. I will try to read them in the comming year.

The Bookworm said...

It sounds like you are enjoying this series Brian. It sounds like a good one for sci-fi fans especially since there's nods to older works in the genre.
I always find that there is something lost in translation when books are translated form a foreign language into English.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, once again you have provided us with a thoughtful and very well written revirew. My guess is that I am not grounded enough in the science fiction genre to tackle The Three Body Problem series. I've often wondered about Asimov and Foundation. Its a classic from the Golden Age of Science fiction and would that be better for beginners? Regarding Dark Forest the feeling I got is that Earth is in no way ready to handle an alien invasion. I fear we would not pull together as a planet.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I am really liking the series. I am uneasy about translation for the reason that you mention. Oddly, I have heard that Liu is not that compelling a writer in Chinese and that the translators enhanced his style. However, I do not think that is a good thing.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy - I would start with Asimov before I started with this. The original Foundation series is a great place to start with him. Later on he wrote more foundation books sand connected them with his Robot books and fiction. I thought that those were also worth reading, but the original Foundation Trilogy is a Classic.

Liu does show an Earth that mostly pulls together. I think that it depends on may circumstances whether that happens or not.

Suko said...

Wow! You enjoyed the second book more than the first. I wonder what you'll think of the third in this series. I look forward to reading your commentary about Death's End. Excellent post, Brian Joseph.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I tend to look at books in closely tied series as one story. Thinking of this series like this makes sense. This the second part was better then the first. Stay tuned for part three.

Whispering Gums said...

I love your description of Luo Ji and his selection as a Wallfacer!

And I like the Trisolaran's desire for a future based on love. That's pretty much what Archbishop Mark Curry argued for in his sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. If only ...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - I thought that particular Trisolaran’s comments reflected a future that humanity should be striving for. I heard Curry’s sermon. It was similar.

James said...

Thanks for the great review. I appreciate your assessment that this is a better novel than its predecessor. I think I will recommend it to our SF reading group.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I actually thought of you when writing about this book. I know that you have reservations about the first book. I wonder if you might like this one better.

Sharon Wilfong said...

And again, a great review, Brian. This book has a lot of ingredients I like: action/adventure; world-building; scientific fantasy concepts and a commentary on historical social events; and last, but not least, a reluctant hero who finds himself in all sorts of situations he does not feel equipped to deal with. I love that kind of character.

Does the author still live in China? I wonder if he could get away with making negative comments about totalitarian governments.

Who knows when I'll get around to reading this trilogy, but I'm glad you put this author on my radar.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think that you would like this. Lou Ji seems the most reluctant of heros.

Liu still lives in China. The Chinese government is certainly totalitarian and repressive. But I think that they are odd and act like they are not. Thus I think that they allow general criticism of repressive systems. At least sometimes.

Tracy Terry said...

Whilst I'm sure I'd find the characters fascinating, I'm not convinced I wouldn't find this too serious a work of Science Fiction. I will however pass the details onto Mr T as I'm sure he'd be interested.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Based on what you have written in the past, I think this would be right up Mr. T’s ally.

Sheree Strange said...

Hmmm, this one sounds far more complex, I'm thinking I'd need to tackle the Three Body Problem first. It's another great review, Brian, cheers!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharee - This book really only works as a sequel to the Three Body Problem. I cannot imagine reading it without reading the first book.

thecuecard said...

I like the sound of this one: confronting an alien invasion with the Wallfacers leading the way. How interesting. This one seems to have a lot going on in it! Glad you liked this one even better. I look forward to hearing about the third book ... which will likely be all about the invasion, right?

HKatz said...

"Crews of two of the ships murder the crews of the other ships in order to obtain fuel and spare parts. These actions are presented as the only possible way that the ships will be able to reach their destinations."

I think this really speaks to the fears people have now - not of alien invasion but of fewer resources and fewer jobs, and the possible consequences.

Anyway, excellent review!

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

The Wallfacers was such a cool concept, wasn't it? I love it how Cixin Liu is just so creative with these things. And sophons were the coolest! I don't really like the direction the sophons go in the third book, but I'll let you first read it and then we can talk :D

This book was mind blowing in many ways! But the third one, that one just completely blew my mind. I can't wait for your review :) I feel like I should reread these...

So many books, so little time said...

I think I need to check the other review as I haven't read the first xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Maria Behar said...

AWESOME analysis of this book, Brian! As always!! :)

Even before I got to your observation that this novel is superior to the first one, I had thought as much. I think this is due to the introduction of the sophons, as well as the Wallfacers. Both are totally fascinating concepts! Furthermore, as you have stated, this plot does seem far more interesting, with more nuanced characters.

I also like the way the author comments on extremist left and right-wing ideologies, and the resolution of the problems created by them. As you know, I am a political moderate (although I have been leaning a bit more to the left of late, thanks to YOU KNOW WHO), so this is something I find not only interesting, but also very rational and well-balanced.

It also seems that Liu excels at making the Trisolarans sound like a very real menace. Again, as I stated in my comment to your review of "The Three-Body Problem", I much prefer benevolent aliens in the SF genre (thank you, Mr. Spock!). However, I've always thought that, if there was ANYTHING that might succeed in having us humans treat each other humanely, as well as unite, it would be the impending threat of alien invasion. Such an impending event would, I'm sure, put an end to such things as all of the MORONIC rhetoric regarding immigration by the present Trump administration. If HOSTILE EXTRATERRESTRIALS were a REAL threat, you can bet your bottom dollar that NO ONE would worry about HUMAN IMMIGRANTS being a so-called "impediment" to "making America great again"! In the same way, NO ONE would worry about "whites" being "superior"!

So perhaps the threat of alien invasion would make us forget all of our ridiculous beliefs in "us" versus "them". Heck, it might even make us forget about insisting that men are "superior" to women!

On the other hand....maybe I'm being too naive and idealistic here.....maybe these morons would hold fast to their prejudices, even in the face of impending invasion and world domination by hostile aliens.... And the beat goes on.....sigh....

Thanks for your thoughtful insights on this novel!! <3 :)

baili said...

either i find this version more appealing than first one Brain which occurs less

there are many movies and books with the topic but this one seems fascinating through your wonderful commentary
i liked your chosen lines from the novel which display the complete concept of the novel
i agree with the idea that one day man will know finally that he is , and everything in universe is creation of love and he needs to plan the further survival according to this basic theory

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - A lot when on in this book. I have actually finished the last book. Even more happens. I will have commentary up soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - My commentary on the first book is here http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-three-body-problem-by-cixin-liu.html

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - It is rare that a second book is better then the first.

Though I think that there are both positive and negative aspects to existence, I think that as societies and cultures advance, the positive nature wins out.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina. Both the Sophans and The Wallfacers were great concepts. Liu is so imaginative. I have actually finished the third book. I will have commentary up soon.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

There are all sorts of fascinating concepts floating around this book. There are more that I did not even mention.

I also prefer benevolent aliens. I also think that they are a lot more likely.

It is hard to know for sure how humanity would react to an alien threat. I think that we would probably unite. I agree that this ridiculous rhetoric about immigrants would be a thing of the past.

Liu seems to be very much a humanist. He sees the danger of both right and left wing extremist governments.

Stefanie said...

Better than the first one? I have to get my reading under control so I can have some time to read this sooner rather than later. Enjoyed the review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Stefanie - It is so rare that I call a sequel better then the original. If you read this I would love to know what you thought of it.

Caroline said...

While when reading your first review of this series I thought this wouldn’t be fir me, now I’m not so sure as I just watched Star Trek Discovery. It’s actually fascinating to think these books span some many centuries.
This sounds excellent.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- I also have been watching Discovery. I mostly like it. I also found this book s lot better then the first.