My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Dark Forest (published in 2015 in English; in 2008 for the its publication in China) by Cixin Liu (surname Liu) is the second book of the trilogy and is preceded by The Three-Body Problem (first published in English in 2014) and followed by Death’s End (published in English in September 2016).
At a total of 512 pages long, The Dark Forest reads smoothly and quickly, much like its predecessor The Three-Body Problem, but fails to sustain the interest throughout, unlike its predecessor, mainly due to The Dark Forest spanning two hundred years into the future while covering countless minor characters (a Chinese habit in literature, especially in A Dream of Red Mansions – all four volumes) having little to no significance on the plot as a whole, but a literary device that must have more to do with filling in plot gaps than anything else. But with that said, The Dark Forest has a thesis and it is this thesis that keeps the reader turning pages (which I won’t spoil for you here—not just yet anyway).
To begin, the reader inspects an ant crawling upon a tombstone as a figure emerges to discuss the possibilities of the universe, which will set the tone and underlying hypothesis throughout the book. Luo Ji meets with Dr. Ye, both from the first book, and the discourse enters into the idea of “cosmic sociology”:
“Suppose a vast number of civilizations are distributed throughout the universe, on the order of the number of detectable stars. Lots and lots of them. Those civilizations make up the body of a cosmic society. Cosmic sociology is the study of the nature of this super-society” (p 12).
As fascinating as all this sounds, cosmic sociology vanishes into the background and does not emerge until the book’s end, a sad note to consider when much of the book and its title is founded on the very basis of this super-society hidden in the dark forest that is the universe.
Instead, the reader leaves the Prologue and enters Part I marked “The Wallfacers” and it is this government initiated program to recruit four men from across the globe to become Wallfacers who have access to unlimited funds and resources in the sole hope of destroying the alien invasion some four hundred years away that takes up the rest of the book (note: sophons from Trisolaris were introduced in The Three-Body Problem):
“Humanity still has secrets, in the inner world that each of us possesses. The sophons can understand human language, and they can read printed texts and information on every kind of computer storage media at ultrahigh speeds, but they can’t read human thoughts. So long as we do not communicate with the outside world, ever individual keeps things secret forever from the sophons. This is the basis of the Wallfacer Project.
“At its heart, the project consists of selecting a group of people to formulate and direct strategic plans. They will develop their plans entirely in their own minds, with no communication of any kind with the outside world. The true strategy of these plans, the necessity steps for completion, and the ultimate aims will remain hidden inside the brain. We shall call them the Wallfacers because that ancient Eastern name for meditators mirrors the unique characteristics of their work. As they direct the execution of their strategic plans, the thoughts and behaviors these Wallfacers present to the outside world will be entirely false, a carefully crafted mélange of disguise, misdirection, and deception. The subject of this misdirection and deception will be the entire world, both enemy and ally, until a huge, bewildering maze of illusions is erected to make the enemy lose its judgment, and to delay as long as possible the moment it works out our true strategic intent” (p 100-101).
The book then toggles, often clumsily, between the four men and how each of their plans become destroyed by the Wallbreakers, humans working on behalf of the Trisolarians established in The Three-Body Problem.
In addition to the unfolding madness that ensues as humanity becomes more aware of the alien invasion, still centuries out, the author does take time to contemplate social implications on just such an event:
“The critical question is who gets to leave, and who has to stay. This isn’t ordinary inequality. It’s a question of survival, and no matter who gets to leave—elites, the rich, or ordinary people—so long as some people get left behind, it means the collapse of humanity’s fundamental value system and ethical bottom line. Human rights and equality have deep roots. Inequality of survival is the worst sort of inequality, and the people and countries left behind will never just sit and wait for death while others have a way out. There will be increasingly extreme confrontations between the two sides until there’s world chaos, and then no one goes…
“In the thirty minutes that he had been waiting, ten thousand new babies had come into the world, babies whose combined cries formed a tremendous chorus. Behind them was the Golden Age, the good times that began in the 1980s and ended with the Crises. Ahead of them, humanity’s arduous years were about to unfold” (p 60-61).
As insightful as these ruminations might appear at first read in connection with the unfolding contemporary questions about societal displacement as sea levels rise and ice melts and the earth shakes due to Global Warming, the author presents no new ideas that have not already been considered and discuss and written about (in English) for the last few thousand years. But all the same, the concluding calculations do not mitigate the social problems the future generations face, either in this sci-fi based world or the real.
The second Wallfacer and his plan form around the concept of “defeatism” whereas the first, see above, forms around “escapism”, and defeatism can be better understood as thus:
“The source of defeatism stems primarily from the worship of technology, and the underestimation or complete dismissal of the role of human initiative and the human spirit in war. It is a development and extension of techno-triumphalism and the ‘weapons decide everything’ theory that has cropped up in the armed forces in recent years. The trend is particularly pronounced among highly educated officers” (p 77).
The last Wallfacer, Luo Ji, takes an opposite approach to solving the crises of the alien invasion, one the reader might call “avoidance.” Luo Ji, instead, creates an image of his dream girl (you may have noticed how the author, Cixin Liu, often tells and explains concepts in length so far, but below is a prime example of how he can also show the reader concrete characters, like the dream girl):
“He threw out everything he wanted to write and instead imagined the character’s entire life and every detail of it. He imagined her nursing at her mother’s breast, her tiny mouth sucking energetically and burbling with satisfaction; chasing a red balloon tumbling down the street but making it just one step before falling to the ground, wailing as she watched the balloon drift away without realizing that she had just taken her first step; walking in the rain and impulsively folding up her umbrella to feel the raindrops; her first day at elementary school, sitting alone in a strange classroom, unable to see her parents through the windows or door, and nearly starting to cry, only to realize that her best friend from kindergarten was at a nearby desk, and crying in joy instead; her first night at college, lying on her dorm bunk and watching the shadows of trees thrown by streetlamps onto the ceiling…He imagined every one of her favorite foods, the color and style of every item of clothing in her dresser, the decorations on her mobile phone, the books she read, the music on her media player, the Web sites she visited, the movies she liked, but never her makeup, because she didn’t need makeup…Like a creator outside of time, he wove the different stages of her life together and gradually came to discover the endless pleasure of creation” (p 82-83).
Despite Luo Ji’s avoidance to perform as a Wallfacer—he actually has the government track down a real girl identical to his imaginary dream girl so he can live out his days in a secluded cabin by a mountain and lake—no one can say otherwise, because of the premise that all Wallfacers may act in accordance to misdirection and deception to fool the sophons:
“He now understood that the Wallfacers had a mission far weirder than any in history, its logic cold and twisted, yet unyielding as the chains that bound Prometheus. It was an unliftable curse impossible for the Wallfacers to break under their own strength. No matter how he struggled, the totality of everything would be greeted with the Wallfacer smile and imbued with the significance of the Wallfacer Project: How are we supposed to know if you are working?” (p 117).
Since 90% of the book involves the Wallfacer Project and how each Wallfacer adopts a strategy only for the ploys to become debunked by the Wallbreakers sent by the Trisolarians, there is not much more to dive into; the reader really should discover these plot twists on his/her own.
Before the end comes too soon, and without giving too much away, let us find out what is meant by that deceptive little title and thesis at the beginning which should have read something more like “The Wallfacer” rather than “The Dark Forest” from the man himself, forgiving a tired clichés (“as if stroking velvet” and “like a ghost”):
“‘The real universe is just that black.’ Luo Ji waved a hand, feeling the darkness as if stroking velvet. ‘The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox’” (p 484-485).
With China having built and switched on the “Largest Radio Telescope in the World”, according to NPR, in search of extraterrestrial life in the Universe, one wonders after reading The Dark Forest if who and what we find out there may in fact be friend or foe, angel or demon we do not know. But one thing is for certain, Humanity has shouted as loud as it can into the darkness and what will be returned no one knows for sure.
Now when the reader peers into the dark forest above, filled with countless stars that may or may not house angels or demons, legions of hunters who may prove friend or foe, there is at least some hope left, albeit foreboding indeed, in the last book of the trilogy called Death’s End.
Until then, keep reading and smiling…
Wellington Street in Hong Kong (Feb. 2016, photo by CG FEWSTON)
And HAPPY BIRTHDAY today (September 28) to my father, CG!