Thoughts: The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen

This is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. I enjoyed The Three-Body Problem, that weird grim sci fi tangled up with China’s Cultural Revolution, but I loved The Dark Forest.

More spoilers! Be warned!

So what was different?

Ehhh, I don’t think that any difference explains the intensity of my love for this book. It’s not that The Three-Body Problem was worse, just, I think, that it was doing the hard work of setting up a complicated situation, and The Dark Forest is where we get to really play in it. It’s true that the translator for The Dark Forest is different to the translator for the first and third instalments, but I didn’t notice any particular difference in tone (though there were here and there Americanisms that I didn’t really get, not being American, and of course no one would gloss an Americanism the way they would a specifically Chinese reference that got left in, but that’s another, older story with me…). What I think has happened (and I might be wrong) is that because these books are so huge, the publisher had Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen overlapping in their work to ensure that the trilogy (which was of course already finished in Chinese) could be released in a timely manner. Certainly they seem to have communicated with each other, and Ken Liu is back for Death’s End, the third volume, so he can’t have displeased anyone.

Anyway, where do I even start with The Dark Forest? I don’t want to say too much but at the same time I want to say everything. The Dark Forest opens with an ant crawling on a gravestone (that of Dong Yang, from the first book) while Wenjie, the first book’s main character, and Luo Ji, the main character of this one, are talking about where people go from here. The ant crawls over the dates, but gives up once we have “20” of the year of Dong Yang’s death, thus situating us squarely in the year 20XX. And it’s done with such a straight face that I couldn’t even be angry.

And don’t forget that first conversation, by the way – it’ll be important later.

The Dark Forest is full of this – the prologue not only gives us a knowing wink with this coyness about the exact year, and the metaphor of the ant’s life juxtaposed against the higher intelligence of the human characters standing in for Earth getting on with its little life against the backdrop of space and the alien civilisations therein, but it plants these plot-important ideas as well. It’s masterful is what it is.

The Three-Body Problem was situated in sort of cracks in extant world history, and The Dark Forest is where the tracks of the book’s world and ours really start to diverge. Now that the Trisolarans are common knowledge, humanity has to react. I can’t describe how immersed I was in this cat-and-mouse game which started up when the Trisolarans’ tiny spy probes (which have also effectively blocked further scientific advancement on Earth) start really interfering. There are humans who want the Trisolarans to come and humans who want to stop them and humans who just want to get on with their lives. And it’s surprisingly funny, as well as tense and hopeful and bleak by turns. Humanity is funny. Our silly misunderstandings and odd priorities (the scientist who used a giant space telescope to take a selfie, the old men arguing about how best they’ll be disposed with when they’re dead to avoid their remains being tampered with by aliens, Luo Ji’s purchasing of the oldest wine in the world, and the results of that).

The scope is immense. And that folk tale style feeling of The Three-Body Problem is present here too. Humanity appoints four Wallfacers to come up with secret plans to confound the aliens, with almost limitless power and budget, to avoid detection by the sophon spy probes, and the slow reveal of each one’s plans has a pleasing thematic increase in intensity – but they’re also pretty in-depth and fascinating plans in their own rights. Luo Ji is the only one who initially rebels and decides to blatantly abuse his powers for his own comfort, but at this point the people around him just ascribe an inscrutable intelligence to his every desire.

Humanity has a few centuries to either put its affairs in order or come up with a way to finally drive off the Trisolarans, and at first there’s an unsettlingly plausible lack of urgency and direction in this. There are some scientific advancements made (human hibernation and giant spaceships), and the former is what enables us to follow some of the same characters through the story. Liu manages this epic timescale with an orchestra conductor’s flair, as things which seemed to be huge threats die out with time, as plans work or go nowhere and the rules of the game evolve and change.

Okay, there’s just too much to talk about here. But I will say that Liu’s bold choice to have the world descend into chaos offscreen, between hibernations, was just perfect. Amazing. Station Eleven on an infinitely grander scale. The dark ages of the future are not relevant to the story, so let’s not waste time on them. That’s the kind of choice that says to me I’m in good hands.

The other thing I want to talk about very briefly before I end this is the droplet episode, and basically just how even in something as vast and grand as this can have such sharp shocks in it. No joke, that was like Red Wedding levels of shock. And don’t even get me started on Zhang Beihai, who was too good for all of them. Due to the scale and trilogy-length of the story, we may not get to know each character as intimately as the main cast of A Song of Ice and Fire, but Liu makes us care, make no mistake about that.

Right, I’ll end it there before this becomes an endless paean to The Dark Forest. There are a hundred things I haven’t mentioned, including the way I loved that Luo Ji’s actions as a Wallfacer would have almost read as a ko’an or a fable if written from a totally outside perspective, but you’ll just have to read the book. I can’t wait to read Death’s End.

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