The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s follow-up to The Three-Body Problem (first published in English in 2014 and selected as a Hugo and Nebula Award Finalist), and is the second book in his THREE BODY apocalyptic SF trilogy (which was already published in China back in 2010). It took a while for the series to gain enough popularity in China to catch the attention of US publishers, but since the first book was released last year, major newspapers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post have all published favorable feature articles because Chinese SF is a very rare and unknown commodity in the Western world.
The Three-Body Problem was an original blend of mystery, particle physics, global politics, virtual reality games, and alien contact. Its strengths were its ideas and extrapolation about alien contact, not characterization, and The Dark Forest follows this pattern. Now that humanity knows that aliens are coming and they are not friendly (their only statement to humanity was “You’re bugs”), they have 400 years to prepare before the alien warfleet arrives. This is an original concept in SF since most alien-contact stories start with the point of first contact and go from there. How would humanity respond when it has that much time to prepare, with most of the early generations knowing they won’t ever live to see the final confrontation with the alien Trisolarans? It’s an interesting contrast to Neal Stephenson’s latest book Seveneves, in which humanity has just 1-2 years to prepare an Ark to preserve human civilization from destruction by meteorites.
Liu postulates that humanity will struggle to put forth a united front against the aliens, even faced with annihilation in four centuries. This makes perfect sense from a psychological point of view: how many of us put off tomorrow what could be done today, like my daughter watching YouTube when she should be studying, or humanity using up fossil fuels and resources without concern for the next generation? Then imagine that 16 generations will go by before the Trisolarans will come to Earth and exterminate us like bugs. Why bother worrying at all? And certainly much of humanity does respond this way.
However, the Planetary Defense Council is not content to admit defeat. It decides to establish the Wallfacer Project (pretty badly named, which is what you get for putting it to a committee to decide), which vests four individuals with enormous powers; they are tasked to come up with secret strategies to defeat the alien invasion. Secrecy is needed because the Trisolarans have infiltrated the Earth with sophons, subatomic particles that contain super-powerful AIs capable of eavesdropping on all human communications around the world. Because of this, the only way to deceive the Trisolarans is to essentially keep all real plans unspoken, and to misdirect human society as well.
The first three Wallfacers selected are well-known political figures or scientists, but inexplicably the final member selected is Luo Ji, an unknown Chinese astronomer and sociologist. Thanks to a visit from Ye Wenjie (a major character from the previous book), he develops an interest in “cosmic sociology,” which postulates that there are only two major axioms that an intelligent species will follow: 1) the ultimate imperative is survival of your species, and 2) there is limited mass in the universe but life grows exponentially, so life must fight for space. Based on these principles, any species encountering another has only one logical choice: strike first and destroy the other before it happens to them. The concept of “chains of doubt” essentially ensures that an intelligent species cannot assume another is benign, so it must attack first to survive. It’s clear that the Trisolarans have taken this approach, especially since their own solar system is unstable and likely to destroy itself. By that calculus, it doesn’t matter if mankind is friendly or not: we have a habitable planet and they do not. We’re “bugs,” and it’s not our business if they want to wipe us out.
Surprisingly, the Trisolarans still have some human supporters (i.e., those who oppose humanity) on Earth, and they establish a counter-strategy that assigns a Wallbreaker for each Wallfacer. As the story proceeds, the first two Wallfacers come up with wildly different schemes, only to be foiled by their Wallbreakers. With each defeat, humanity becomes increasingly convinced it stands no chance against the Trisolarans. However, Luo Ji takes a very unorthodox approach, seeming not to care and indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle. Though this is designed to throw the Trisolarans and their Wallbreakers off the scent, even his closest friends (and readers of The Dark Forest) are confused.
The story then leaps ahead by 200 years, as we find that Luo Ji and Da Shi (the gruff cop from the first book) have gone into cryogenic hibernation, hoping to see an age when humanity has made more scientific progress to meet the oncoming alien invasion. Initially, they are impressed by technological advances such as fusion-powered starships, powerful space weaponry, ubiquitous electric power, etc. However, they notice that humans in the future have gotten a bit too confident in their abilities, and are quite complacent in assuming their superiority to the Trisolaran fleet. They seem to have forgotten that earlier message, “You’re bugs.”
Up to this point I found the first two-thirds of The Dark Forest to have interesting ideas but was somewhat slow-going amid a lack of interesting events to forward the plot. This was much the same in The Three-Body Problem. But like that book, the third act really packs a punch, with so many earlier plot lines finally reaching fruition and making the overall storyline much clearer. The most impressive set-piece here is the encounter between the initial scout ship of the Trisolaran fleet, an unassuming tear-shaped “droplet” that is perfectly smooth and light-reflecting, and the big and powerful Space Fleet of humanity, all geared-up and spoiling for a fight. The ensuing battle is quite spectacular and humbling by turns.
In the aftermath, several surviving human ships (dubbed “Starship Earth”) seek to leave the Solar System and establish humanity in another part of space, out of range of the Trisolarans. However, severed from the ties of Mother Earth, they turn on each other in a savage enactment of the “cosmic sociology” axiom of survival at all costs.
Finally, reluctant hero Luo Ji again finds himself the only person on Earth able to clearly understand the Trisolaran’s thinking and come up with a suitable counter-strategy that will keep them from wiping out humanity. His solution is quite intricate and well-conceived, and provides a sinister explanation to Fermi’s Paradox, but this all happens in just a few densely-written pages, so you have to pay close attention to understand what happens. His actions also set the stage for the series’ final installment, Death’s End, due out in January 2016 from Tor, and from the publisher’s description, the relationship of humans and Trisolarans has changed completely from what we were led to expect previously.
As with The Three-Body Problem, I thought The Dark Forest was filled with neat ideas and clunky characterization, and the first two-thirds of the book were somewhat slow-going but the pyrotechnics of the final third made up for it. I listened to the audiobook narrated by P.J. Ochlan, and he did a good job including pronounciation of the Chinese names, though I still have trouble keeping them straight in my head without seeing them on the page. This book was translated by Joel Martinsen, and I believe he did a good job, as did Ken Liu for the first book. I don’t think the characters are wooden because of the translation — that lies with the author, and I think his strength is more in ideas and extrapolation, so I am willing to overlook that. In fact, what Western readers expect from characters may be different from Chinese readers, so it’s tough to say. In any case, I still am keen to see what he can do in the trilogy’s finale, Death’s End.