The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published August 11, 2015
In the first volume of Cixin Liu’s Hugo-nominated Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a secret military project sent signals into space to make contact with aliens. The signal was captured by an alien race on the brink of destruction, who formulate a plan to travel to Earth, a trip that will take four centuries, and stage an invasion. The Dark Forest continues this story. Although their ships will not arrive for 400 years, the Trisolarans have planted sophons, subatomic particles that give them access to all human information on Earth, making it nearly impossible for humanity to form a response that the aliens will not see coming. Only the human mind remains a secret.
As a result, the Wallfacer Project is formed, a plan that grants four selected individuals almost unlimited resources to design separate and secret strategies, which are to be hidden from both Earth and Trisolaris through misdirection and deceit. Most of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but Luo Ji is a wildcard. A Chinese astronomer and sociologist of seemingly little consequence, he is baffled by his new status, and yet he is the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris fears.
Is there some pay-off at the end of the book? Yes. Is it enough to justify slogging through 500 pages of this? Not even close.
I was acutely aware that the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem, was not my kind of book (see my review here), and yet I was capable of admiring its merits and understanding why it had been so acclaimed. Not so with The Dark Forest. The book suffers from a bad case of Second Book Syndrome and manages to not only be dull and devoid of interesting characters, but also uncomfortably misogynistic throughout.
It is clear that characters are not a strength of Cixin Liu’s. Most of his characters have so few distinguishing characteristics that they all blend together into one bland, not particularly likable, type. The female characters, of which there are few, fare even worse. His women exist primarily as love interests for the male characters, who lead, make the tough decisions, and generally hold positions of importance, including all four Wallfacer appointments. This may be a realistic stance. Given the state of the world today I suspect men would be chosen, based on the assumption that they have a stronger background in both scientific accomplishments and strategic warfare, and yet I can’t help thinking how much more interesting the story would have been (in the hands of another writer that is) if a female perspective and plan had been included.
I could have put aside the lack of main female characters if the minor characters had been three-dimensionally written, but there are problems here too. Multiple women (again, from a small cast of female characters to begin with) betray their husbands, enough to make me wonder if the author has some unresolved issues. Additionally, The Dark Forest opens with its womanizing main character’s latest fling being killed in an attack on them both and the main character initially can’t even remember her name. When he does, the author never reveals it.
But the most offensive portrayal of women comes from the main character, Luo Ji, falling in love with an imaginary perfect woman that he has created. Far from being told this is abnormal, the doctor tells him he doesn’t have a sickness, he just has natural literary talent in creating a character so real the writer is unable to control them. “There’s nothing excessive about imagination. Especially where love is concerned,” says the doctor. It’s a scene made particularly ironic by the fact that Cixin Liu’s characters are so one-dimensional it’s hard to imagine any of them having a mind of their own.
Luo Ji is so infatuated with this non-existent women that it destroys his one close relationship with a real woman. When he is appointed a Wallfacer and has the resources of the world at his disposal in order to save the planet, he uses them to find a real woman who fits exactly the image he has in his head, by describing the woman to his bodyguard and asking him to find her and bring her to him. The imaginary woman is described as:
“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality.”
“She likes to wear-how would you put it?-simple, elegant clothing, a little plainer than other women her age.” Luo Ji nodded dumbly, over and over, but there’s always something white, like a shirt or a collar, that contrasts sharply with the dark colors of the rest of her outfit… Finally, she’s not tall, one hundred and sixty centimeters or so, and her body is…well I guess you could say slender, as if a gust of wind could blow her away.”
In a particularly unbelievable turn of events, the bodyguard finds a woman who exactly matches this description, brings her to Luo Ji, and they proceed to fall in love and have a child together. The impending alien invasion is easier to believe than this ridiculous plot twist. After they’ve been together for a few years, long enough for her to produce a child, the woman (Yan Yan) is quite literally fridged! She’s put into refrigerated hibernation along with her daughter, effectively held as hostages to ensure that Luo Ji does his duty as a Wallfacer by producing a strategy! If this wasn’t disturbing enough, Yan Yan herself is infantilised, described repeatedly as innocent, trusting, and childlike (all of the following quotes come from just five pages):
“Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.”
“She flashed him that innocent smile that dashed his heart to pieces.”
“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naive expression was one he had seen on her countless times before.”
“The look in her eyes was one of slight curiosity mixed with goodwill and innocence.”
“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”
Putting aside the poorly written characters and sexism, there are things that keep The Dark Forest from being a complete dud. The book has less of a focus on physics and hard science-fiction, which makes it easier to understand for those of us without a science background. The translation, by Joel Martinsen instead of Ken Liu, also seems better and less clumsy this time around, although there is some purple prose that I’m not sure if I should attribute to Liu or to Martinsen.
The concept is interesting, and I particularly enjoyed the parts of the novel set in the more distant future and the glimpses at technology in this world. Leaf houses, screens on every flat surface, personalized ads (including an ad for a bandage shortly after a character is in an accident) are all imaginatively rendered and created a detailed picture in my head. There are also scattered moments of humour, such as when a character is repeatedly targeted for assassination, but is informed that he will receive compensation for each failed attempt on his life. Each Wallfacer’s plan is also interesting to read about.
The Dark Forest paints a rather grim, but realistic I think, portrait of humanity and how we would react to a crisis like this. When humanity is aware that the Trisolaran fleet will be coming for them and strategies for survival are looking uncertain at best, some try to escape but Escapism is banned, as humanity can’t decide on who should be allowed to survive. Of course the most interesting part of the novel is the reason for its title. I’ve whited this out and warned for spoilers below, so scroll past if you’re considering reading this.
*SPOILERS for the end of the book/central concept*
In sharp contrast to the optimism of Star Trek with its United Federation of Planets, the author presents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens when the probability of their existence is high. The novel takes its name from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. Liu posits that the universe is a “dark forest”, which is populated by predatory species who will wipe out lesser beings. Most intelligent life forms therefore know well enough to keep quiet in order to preserve their existence, but “there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’ In sending a signal to the universe, humanity has made itself vulnerable.
*End of SPOILERS*
I’m a keen supporter of diverse voices in books and particularly in Science-Fiction, a genre which is still predominantly being written by white men, but that diversity shouldn’t come at the cost of three-dimensional female characters. I wavered stubbornly over whether I should try to finish the series in the name of reading all of the Hugo award nominees for best novel this year, but reviews for Death’s End, the final volume in the series, have convinced me that this would be a waste of my time. With no one to root for and the book often demonstrating the worst of human civilization, it’s difficult to care about whether humanity survives or not. It’s a shame that the potential of The Three-Body Problem was squandered in such a way.