The Dark Forest | Cixin Liu | 2015, Pb 2016 (English edn) | Head of Zeus | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Dark Forest continues the superb trilogy, now translated into English, begun by The Three-Body Problem, which won this year’s Hugo Award and is easily one of my top reads of 2015. It’s good news that Head of Zeus is publishing each of the three novels with not too long a gap between them and now it’s the turn of the middle book, The Dark Forest. Needless to say, reading the middle book of a trilogy without having read the opener first is not to be recommended and so beware – the review below assumes that you’ve read The Three-Body Problem and know what has taken place.
Earth has entered the Crisis Era, a period begun by the stark realisation that the Trisolarian fleet is on its way and will arrive in 400 years. All technology is limited by the infiltration of the Trisolarian sophons. Large sections of the population are in despair while others regard the human race as justly done and welcome the arrival of the Trisolarians as lords. The United Nations and other authoritities must confront it all – an alien invading fleet, a countdown to a doomed future, restricted science, traitors, defeatists and escapists. The situation is extreme and Earth’s powers come up with a potential defence just as extreme – the Wallfacer Project. Four scientists and statesmen become Wallfacers, a position that gives them near absolute power and resources. Their mission is to use deceit and secrecy to come up with a solution that will elude the sophon spies. One Wallfacer, though, is a mystery – astronomer Luo Ji – and nobody is more surprised than Luo Ji when his name is announced. But where there are Wallfacers there are also Wallbreakers – the Trisolarian influence stretches far and deep.
The Dark Forest tells the stories of the four very different Wallfacers, as well as the social and scientific pressures on the world that relies on them so absolutely. This is a novel, like its predecessor, that pulls so much of life together – science, love, war, fear, and even the philosophy of living. These are huge themes. Humanity is facing extinction but not immediately. There is ample time for mankind to fret, worry and mourn, not just for themselves but also for their doomed descendants. How is one to live, love and worship in such circumstances? Cixin Liu takes us to each level of the struggle, whether it’s at a high political level, within army ranks, or within the private souls of many individuals that walk across these pages.
The scope of the novel is enormous, more so than in The Three-Body Problem, and at times it does become painfully intense and quite complex. There is plenty of reasoned argument and debate and I will admit that on a few occasions it did lose me. I do actually wonder if some of that was because of the translation. I thought that the translation of The Three-Body Problem was beautifully done, bringing the prose to life. The Dark Forest has a different translator with a different style. This felt more prosaic, more Western even, and I did think it suffered a little for the loss of magic. The big difference in this second book is that the three-body game no longer plays a part and I really missed it. I loved how the game was folded into the first book, making the Trisolarian world seem real, strange and extraordinary. In The Dark Forest we are firmly placed on Earth, in a reality with a mission, even though its characters are involved with enormously philosophical and complex ideas and dreams about how best to achieve that mission.
I had a couple of minor issues with The Dark Forest, possibly because I must compare it with The Three-Body Problem which, I think, is nigh on perfect. In this second novel there are so few independent women, a noticeable contrast to the preceding novel, and I did wonder why all four Wallfacers are male when women played such a prominent role in The Three-Body Problem. Also, much attention is paid here to the limits of technological advancement and yet from an early stage in the book hibernation is a feasible option for those who cannot face the present. The Three-Body Problem is a novel strongly rooted in China – in The Dark Forest international borders have almost become obsolete. I can understand why that is but I did miss this cultural and historical influence.
The Dark Forest is full of surprises and wondrous ideas but it is in the final third of the novel that it reaches its heights. I will reveal nothing about it other than to say that I was mesmerised by the developments in the story and in its characters. The depth of feeling here is extraordinary. Emotion and science brilliantly co-exist. To call the vision grand and ambitious seems a ridiculous understatement! The Dark Forest doesn’t feel like a middle book, it feels like the second book of two. Its ending is truly wonderful and I could perfectly understand if it all ended there. I await the conclusion, Death’s End, in the spring with enormous anticipation. I have no doubt that when this trilogy is complete we will have a masterpiece in our hands.
The Three-Body Problem