Review: The Dark Forest

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Review: The Dark Forest

     The universe is a dark forest…

The second book in Cixin Liu’s “Three Body” trilogy picks up right where the first one left off, with the Trisolaran fleet making its way to Earth to wipe out humanity. The sophons – undetectable Trisolaran multi-dimensional computers surrounding the planet – have permanently sabotaged all high-energy physics experiments, guaranteeing that Earth’s technology will never progress to the level of Trisolaris. Earth now has the impossible job of trying to defeat an unbeatable enemy that won’t even arrive for four centuries. And the sophons can see everything that happens on Earth, meaning the Trisolarans and their human collaborators will know humanity’s defense strategies almost as soon as they’re created.

Almost. There’s still one kind of plan that can be kept a secret from the invaders: a plan that doesn’t even exist except in the mind of the person who creates it. 

In The Three Body Problem it was the theoretical physics that was over my head most of the time. In The Dark Forest it’s the intrigue. Several prominent scientists on Earth are promoted to the title of Wallfacer: people who have to somehow design a strategy to defeat the Trisolarans. And the strategy can’t just be secret, it has to be completely incomprehensible, just to make sure the aliens’ human spies can’t figure it out ahead of time. Think about that for a minute. The Wallfacers (to start out with, anyway) have access to all of Earth’s resources, and everything they ask for, no matter how outrageous or dangerous or bizarre, has got to be treated as part of the plan. 

The strategies they come up with are a combination of convoluted and oddly simplistic. I’m still not sure what at least one of them was supposed to accomplish, and for the rest it was hard to figure out the motivation of the Wallfacers themselves. As near as I can figure they either went crazy (very likely) or some of the more horrific plans were the result of a situation where an impossible problem requires a brutal solution. After all, what constitutes “acceptable losses” when you’re talking about saving the entire human race, and what action counts as “going too far” when your other option is for everyone to die? It’s a question that gets asked over and over, in many different situations, and it leads to some terrifying and heartbreaking scenes.

About the only Wallfacer that I could understand most (but not all) of the time was Luo Ji. He had no idea why he’d been chosen to be a Wallfacer, no clue about how to come up with a plan to save the world, no interest at all in the position, and absolutely no luck in convincing anyone – including a would-be assassin – that telling everyone he quit, he was out, goodbye and go away, wasn’t just part of the plan. Stuck in an impossible situation, he chose to use the power at his disposal to set up a perfect life for himself, a beautiful house in a beautiful secluded area, nothing to do but play golf and read and demand that the UN buy him a two-thousand dollar cask of rare wine because, y’know, part of the plan. It’s infuriating, and kind of hard to blame him.

Luo Ji’s chapters had some of the most beautiful passages as well. Surprisingly, seeing as how he’s a womanizing slacker who chose to study cosmic sociology as an easy way to make a name for himself, he’s also a  romantic dreamer. He’s fallen in love in an impossible way, and he decides to use his power as a Wallfacer to actually do something about it. Again, a little infuriating when you consider that all the other Wallfacers are actually out there trying to save the whole entire planet, but how many of us out there haven’t fallen in love with a daydream? Or wouldn’t jump at the chance to make it real?

And he actually makes it work. Until it doesn’t, and then he’s back to his impossible situation all over again.

The high-level science in this novel can be just as baffling as it was in the first book of the trilogy. The reader is expected to keep up with phrases like “Unlike finding a particular position pattern in a starfield, in the universe of the brain the pattern was dynamic and was only identifiable by its mathematical characteristics.” There were several times that I had to plow through a section and wait for the author to spoon-feed the reader the explanation later. Which he did…usually.

The Dark ForestThen you have to grasp the political maneuvering that comes from all of the different governments on the planet trying to agree to one plan, or different factions of the military trying to decide between developing media-propelled spacecraft or fusion engines (as you do), and all the while everyone’s trying to cope with the very dangerous possibility that people will use up valuable resources trying to escape the planet instead of working to save it, or just give up entirely.

What I’m saying is that it takes a huge amount of effort to read this, but I think it’s even more worth it than the first one was. For every chapter filled with pages of dialog and exposition there are scenes with beautiful imagery, like the underground city two hundred years in the future, where travel from building to building is done via backpack helicopters, and people’s clothing is lighted with a shifting array of pictures, like something out of an issue of Adam Warren’s “Dirty Pair”. There’s dreamlike romance and doomsday scenarios. There’s an assassination using the most unusual bullets you can imagine, and a terrifying space battle with several gruesome deaths, where the survivors have to make impossible choices before someone else can make them first.

With Cixin Liu throwing so many science fiction scenarios into the mix, I wasn’t sure he would be able to come up with a final resolution that I could understand, or that wouldn’t be some kind of technobabble that basically translates to “reverse the polarity”. Amazingly, he manages to come up with something not only understandable, but brilliantly simple. And like a lot of the rest of the book, the best part is that one moment where all the explanations come together and you get to say “Oohh, now I get it.”

In fact it resolves everything so perfectly that I had to double check to make sure there was still another book left in the trilogy. The next book will be a completely different situation, an entirely new story, in a world several centuries after the first story began. AND quantum physics will probably become part of the story again.

Sounds like fun; count me in.