The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Will the Dark Forest sprout the seeds of love?
It's an excellent question, even if it induces a deep pessimism and the likelihood of eventual suicide. And yet, this is exactly what we're asked to consider at the end of this excellent novel.
First things first. How does it compare to the first novel? Well, it's a very different read. I can even say it's sedate and deliberate, despite the axe being held over the Earth and all its inhabitants for hundreds of years. We've got a sociology experiment going on here, with lines drawn between optimism and pessimism, faith and despair, and it shows in everything that goes on in the world. In this respect, the novel is very much a product of the many classics of the SF genre that never need to rely on great space battles to tell a good story, and while there IS a space battle, and it's very interesting, it is by far and away the least important message that the novel is wanting to get across.
Strategy is the real plot motivator here, like playing an extremely long game of Go. Lies and the game of darkness is necessary and obvious from the start. Whomever plays the game best will manage to save their civilization. Humans? Or Tri-Solarans?
The secret is there all along, from the first few pages to the last few, and yet we have hundreds of years, societal upheavals, blackmail, and the unsatisfied desire to live a simple and good life.
I started the novel assuming that I'd have a problem with the characterizations again, as I did with the TBP. For the longest time, I just assumed that I'd be dealing with cardboard characters that were only there to promote and ultimately propel the story forward. (Which would have been fine, in fact, because the TBP was so full of wonderful ideas and scope that it held its own regardless.)
I honestly didn't expect The Dark Forest to actually hold up its main character, Lou Ji, to a higher standard and push him through the tale as strongly as it did. Perhaps, had I known that he'd be as strong as he was, I would have paid much closer attention to him from the very start.
As it is now, I'll know what I'll need to do upon a second closer reading. What was mostly unsaid was his internal debate, but that's no matter, because it was always there, mostly hidden in the same way that the Dark Forest hides all.
With some effort, though, his motivations and plan could easily be mapped and enjoyed as an omniscient reader, enriching the tale's excellent ideas with a truly heroic and sacrificed man.
Will the dark forest sprout the seeds of love? Who knows. But it's clear that Lou Ji plans to live his life under the assumption, up to and beyond the point of his greatest despair. I loved it. This novel is not an idea novel, after all.
Sure, it has plenty of interesting ideas, from turning fight vs flight into a moral and then a forced imperative, to assuming that the best way to fight transparency is with the occult. Speculative science took a serious back seat in this novel, but that's okay. We had plenty of other things to keep us busy.
As for the bad parts of this novel? Well, the translation of certain terms are extremely unfortunate. I can't tell you how much I absolutely hate the terms used for our heroes and our villains. Wall-Facers and Wall-Breakers? Seriously? Yes, I get it. You face the wall and contemplate how to scale it, planning move after move until you cannot be beat. Got it. Wall-breakers break the Wall-Facers. Got it.
But, my god, they sound so stupid in English. I would have been fine with a dumb name like Go-Masters or Chess-Masters. At least we'd have a better image in our heads than someone who sits like a dunce in a classroom after being scolded by the teacher. Seriously.
Other than that, I really enjoyed the stratagems between these contestants with the weight of the worlds upon their shoulders, even if it did seem a bit contrived that the UN would decide to prop up a few of their best and brightest to face off with the Tri-Solarans in a battle of wits. (The Tri-Solarans still have their molecule-probes, and they can place them wherever they want to watch and plan accordingly, so with this greater intelligence on their side, the UN planned to force all that intelligence gathering upon these Wall-Facers as either the heroes-that-must-be-beat, or one fantastic diversion to put the enemy off the trail. Not bad reasoning at all, if you can convince the enemy to fall for it. Fortunately, they did.)
I truly believe that the two novels go nicely with each other, and now, I'm even more excited to read the third, but now my expectations have been adjusted away from epic space craziness into the true beginnings of real communication and discovery. Again, shall we go over the dichotomies of faith and despair? I thought not. :)
It's a very thoughtful novel. I recommend it to everyone who loved the Three Body Problem with the caveat that you ought to expect a grand social and strategic battle of wits that showcases an understated and lazy hero who's only claim to fame is a deeper understanding of the stakes and the will to keep his mouth very tightly shut. (That part was very satisfying.)
Was it challenging? Yes. Was I slightly disappointed at times? Yes. Did I get over it? Absolutely. :)
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