Odds and Ends Shelf: The Dark Forest

“That would be great,” he said, and nodded. “The … the thing you call a belief proposition. I’ve written it here. I want to believe this.” He pulled a neatly folded piece of paper from his breast pocket.

Keiko Yamasuki wanted to explain that according to the PDC resolution, the mental seal was only permitted to operate on one proposition, the one written on the monument at the gate. It had to be done exactly as written, and any alteration was prohibited. But Hines gently stopped her. He wanted to take a look at the proposition the man had submitted first. Unfolding the paper, he read what was written on it:

Katherine loves me. She has never and will never have an affair!

Keiko Yamasuki stifled a laugh, but Hines angrily crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the drunken man’s face. “Get the hell out!”

(The following article has major spoilers for The Three Body Problem and moderate spoilers for The Dark Forest. Both books are good; read them first if you want.)

The Three Body Problem is an above-average character study with a good sense of intrigue. I said as much when I reviewed it two years ago, but I suspected going in that, because of where it ends, a sequel wouldn’t be able to pull off that same trick twice. The reveal at the end of the book looks far ahead to the future, indicating that Cixin Liu is ready to ditch the historical basis for Ye Wenjie’s arc in Three Body and go back to high-concept, massive changes to human society, his usual stock and trade.

After the characters in Three Body struck a blow against the human collaborators of a pending alien invasion, the aliens responded by revealing that, thanks to their hyper-advanced technology, they can see everything on Earth and sabotage any attempts for humans to develop technology at the quantum level or beyond, so that in four hundred years they can take Earth without a fight. In response, the UN forms the Wallfacer program, appointing four people to come up with plans to save humanity in the privacy of their own mind. The Dark Forest tracks the Wallfacers’ efforts and the alien collaborators’ attempts to break them, plans which take two hundred years to come to a head.

At its core, the race to find a solution to the Trisolar problem held my attention pretty well, aside from some slow patches; the solution satisfies, and even the redundant, failed plans felt interesting enough that they could have made a foundation for their own book, especially the mental seal. The Dark Forest‘s main weaknesses are that there are no deep characters, and that the future trajectory of the human race can’t help but feel lacking in comparison to the specter of the Cultural Revolution from the first book. There were also quite a few foibles that left me scratching my head:

Romance: One of the ways The Dark Forest tries to get the reader invested in main character Luo Ji is to give him the love of his dreams, almost literally, and then separate him from her until he’s done his job. The romance is portrayed in a heavily idealized manner, and features some of the rare instances of Liu trying to write beautiful prose. Even if this were my kind of romance, the events it starts with are the most unbelievable elements of the entire book.

Liu’s Short Stories: Before The Dark Forest, I read a bundle of short stories by Liu, and came off thoroughly unimpressed by them. Seeing so many different cataclysms in quick succession drained me of my will to read, but made me value how elaborate by comparison his novels are. By the two-hundred-year timeskip, however, I saw some unwelcome reminders of my sojourn into the wilderness of badly-translated Kindle bundles. The exposition dump Luo Ji endures upon waking up and getting thrust into a new society is something that too many of Liu’s short stories did, either by way of a fish-out-of-water main character or directly to the reader. Then came a direct homage to “Curse 5.0,” the most hilariously terrible of the short stories, in which Liu writes himself and a friend into the story so that they can unleash a deadly computer virus on the world in a fit of drunken stupor. The virus has a different name here, but it still attempts to kill Luo Ji several times in a row by taking advantage of a future in which every single object in the urban environment is a computer or robot of some kind. It’s an absurd sequence that could have been cut out of the book with no change to the overall narrative.

Hard Science Fiction: Liu portrayed himself as a hard sci-fi writer in “Curse 5.0,” and though I laughed at the contrast between that statement and the over-the-top events of the bundle I read, it’s not impossible. While he thankfully doesn’t get as vigorous as Seveneves did, there are still sometimes digressions into how some new piece of technology is supposed to work. Liu explains things selectively; while he’s willing to show off anything related to astrophysics or manufacturing, he also has suspended animation technology that passes without comment, as does the people in it being cured of their diseases in the future upon waking up. The reason it’s in the story isn’t because Liu finds it interesting, but because he needs people like Luo Ji to be alive and doing things after the big timeskip. It’s a trope he finds useful, dodging the question of whether cryogenics are even feasible or how society would actually use them.

Da Shi: I get the feeling Shi Qiang, a policeman with the nickname Da Shi, is a fan favorite character, but I can’t say I get the appeal. Like Erwin from The Library at Mount Char, he is an action movie hero placed into a story where his talents are of limited use. I only remember him doing one thing of substance in Three Body, and the only contributions he makes in this book are finding Luo Ji’s perfect wife and saving his life during the Curse 5.0 scene. He’s probably here because he got popular in the last book, but to me he’s only a sketched suggestion, a reminder of cooler people from other stories that I could be rereading instead.

Disaster Porn: The big emotional comedown of the book comes with yet another humiliating reminder of Trisolaran technological superiority. The carnage their technology wreaks is described in exhaustive detail, mostly in terms of how efficiently and completely it destroys military hardware, only occasionally bringing up the high death toll that comes with that destruction. This goes on for about twenty pages, making people like me who were affected by this bummer stew in anticipation, while others will only be impatient to get to the emotional impact and consequences of this one-sided massacre, assuming they aren’t laughing at how everything gets destroyed. Now that I’ve seen the tension through to the end, I think this scene could and should have been over in half the pages. In “Curse 5.0,” Liu’s self-insert laments writing so much senseless destruction now that he’s in the middle of it himself, and it’s times like this I wish he’d hold himself to that promise.

Whether a reader can get invested in this ramshackle, weirdly structured book depends entirely on how interesting they find the ideas, and if the desire to see if the human race can avert almost-certain destruction through a few people’s ingenuity is enough to see them through to the end. Despite how shallow and pulpy The Dark Forest gets at times, how I spoiled myself on the titular metaphor before reading even though it’s treated as a reveal when it’s explained at the end, and thoughts that maybe I should be reading something more sophisticated, it got me, and I’m curious to see how the trilogy ends.

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