The Dark Forest
The first book I finished at the beginning of 2016 will, unless it is a truly amazing year, be on my Top Ten list at the end of 2016. I rated The Three Body Problem highly; its sequel does virtually everything better. For those not already aware, The Dark Forest is the second book in a translated Chinese trilogy that Tor is publishing. The author, Liu Cixin, has a huge following in China and these seem to be his most popular books. They are a take on the familiar alien invasion trope, but one that is most inventive and unpredictable. The Dark Forest is thorny enough that some readers will probably bounce off of it, but a particular sort will find the book hypnotic.
The action kicks off shortly after the end of the first book, but mostly with new characters. The Trisolaris are coming, leaving their ravaged homeworld with intent to wipe out and displace humanity. Worse, they have the overwhelming technological edge to do it. They have dispatched quantum particles in their vanguard that are capable of simultaneously monitoring everything that happens on the Earth. These particles act as a form of instantaneous communication across the light years, and are also blocking certain avenues of humanity’s scientific research. Plants and double agents in both Earth’s world government and the sects of Trisolari collaborators ensure that most secrets are eventually revealed to all involved parties. We also learn early on that Trisolari forms of communication render them unable to lie, a strange chink in their otherwise impenetrable armor. They are incapable of guile and misdirection, which gives humanity its only chance to resist.
At this point, Liu could have gone in several directions. Things are set up for a very typical “Plucky underdog humans use their wits and emerge the unlikely victors” type of story, or even some sort of epic space battle with the fate of millions on the line. Liu teases both of these, but makes another, unorthodox, choice. This is where he may lose some people, because Liu does not follow the rules of Western novel writing. The book is hardly a taut narrative, it doesn’t conform to the usual three act structure, and he completely ignores injunctions to show not tell. I wonder if this is a reflection of different standards in Eastern literature, though I don’t feel like I can speak authoritatively on this. Rather than tension-filled, lean prose, Liu elects to take a comprehensive look at the Earth as it responds to the Trisolari threat. And by comprehensive, I mean exhaustively so. The plot covers a few hundred years and looks at everything: society, military, economics, religion. There are a few main characters that act as our guides, but they are largely overshadowed by the currents of humanity.
The characters are not three-dimensional and alive in the way we sometimes demand of our fiction, but their role is one of Liu’s most mind-bending creations. Knowing that the Trisolaris are guileless creatures, the UN selects three of the most distinguished thinkers in the world – a scientist, a revolutionary, and a political leader – as well as one Chinese dude that nobody has ever heard of, and names them Wallfacers. The Wallfacers are each to conjure up a plan to stop the Trisolaris, but they are to cloak it in misdirection and lies, obscuring the true projects from anything that would give it away. (That would be pretty much everything.) They are given whatever resources they ask and never required to justify, since nobody can know what exactly they are working at. In response, collaboration forces on Earth name Wallbreakers to devote their lives to revealing the secret plans.
Meanwhile, the Chinese military is taking their own countermeasures, endeavoring to plot four hundred years into the future, somehow guessing at where technology will be, how society will change, and what strategies will emerge. Both storylines move along draped in layers of deception and extrapolation, all while humanity adapts around them. It’s very complex and somewhat unforgiving, dry at times, and difficult to comprehend in its entirety. For me, at least, the wild ideas were enough to power me through the first few hundred pages, but I’m sure others will have trouble. It is worth it to persevere however, as the last quarter of the book offers massive and unrelenting payoff. One scene in particular, wherein a Trisolari probe encounters Earth’s space navy, is brilliant in its austere violence. Those few pages alone are worth the price of admission.
Close behind it is the dark forest analogy that gives the book its title, and the resolution that emerges from it. This is the best rush that SF has to offer. Looking more at the dark forest and the way it powers Liu’s thinking offers further windows into the text.
My former coworker has two degrees in International Relations from Chinese universities. He was telling me recently, from one IR wonk to another, how Realism is all the rage right now among the Chinese political science crowd. Realism, for those who haven’t kept up with other IR related Two Dudes ramblings, is the family of foreign policy theories that describe the world as a zero-sum, amoral, competitive environment wherein each country acts as a discrete unit, in its own self-interest, and in constant conflict with every other country. They are opposed by the Liberal theories, which agree that the world is competitive, but also find patterns of cooperation and interdependence that attenuate the tendency towards open conflict. There are various schools of thought within each, but these are the fundamental battle lines. Liberalism is ascendant in the US and Europe as a result of globalism, intertwined economies, and the reluctance of democracies to go to war with each other. China is a rising power, still fascinated with the possibilities of coercion and violence, and locked in multi-polar struggles with its neighbors for regional dominance. I was not surprised to hear about the philosophical leanings of the intelligentsia.
Towards the end of The Dark Forest, Liu explains the galaxy and its denizens as a dark forest. It is a chilling and utterly convincing picture of extraterrestrial society; one it seems must inevitably be true. Those few pages of the book are among the most poetic and most frightening. Again, worth the price of admission right there. I was completely swept up while reading it, but on reflection, realized that he was basically summarizing Offensive Realism, a particularly aggressive and pessimistic view of the world. (Read John Mearsheimer for gothic and depressingly elegant deconstructions of any hope one might have of world peace.) Further, the “chains of suspicion” that drive the power of the dark forest analogy are none other than John Hertz’s Security Dilemma. The fingerprints of classical Realist thinkers are all over this book.
An understanding of the poly sci underpinnings here is not necessary for enjoyment, in part because Liu’s resolution to the issues he posits is fascinating and original. Seeing the world building in this way puts Liu’s book in its cultural context however, and also gives one a variety of angles from which to contest his conception of extraterrestrial power relations. (For further counterpoint, read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. He addresses similar issues, though in a more rollicking format. Scalzi comes from the Western tradition that I would argue has moved past Realism, as the US has moved beyond the strictures of a classical anarchic system.) Do I disagree with Liu? Not entirely. Just as nuclear weapons changed international relations, the ability to drop rocks down the gravity wells of fragile inhabited planets alters the balance of power yet again. He may very well be right, and Star Trek may simply be a naïve pipe dream.
This then is the middle book of Liu’s trilogy. His agenda is every bit as uncompromising and dense as his plotting, but both are meticulous and expansive. It is no breezy read, but rewarding and challenging. I think it’s a better work than Three Body Problem and can’t wait to read the conclusion.