Review: Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

I find it difficult to read fiction. I prefer the matter-of-fact style of non-fiction. If you’ve got something to say, why not say it clearly and distinctly? That being said, sometimes ideas are better able to take hold when expressed indirectly. Fiction can open one’s mind to ideas it was previously closed off to. For that reason, I decided to pick up Liu Cixin’s acclaimed science-fiction trilogy: Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The series is better known by the title of its first novel, The Three Body Problem. Dark Forest is the second book in the series.

The Three Body Problem begins with Ye Wenjie, a Chinese astrophysicist whose father was brutally murdered during the Cultural Revolution. Witnessing her father’s death gives Ye a pessimistic, misanthropic worldview. Her general contempt for humanity later becomes incredibly important to the plot.

After being exiled to the countryside, Ye begins working at a top-secret Chinese military base. As it turns out, the base is being used to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Unfortunately, it is successful. A highly advanced race called the Trisolarans receive Earth’s message, allowing them to pinpoint Earth’s exact location. Trisolaris, their home world, has a chronically unstable climate, making it difficult for Trisolaran civilisation to advance. They decide to invade and colonise Earth.

The Three Body Problem ends with Earth being aware of the Trisolaran invasion. However, due to the limitations of space-travel, it will take the Trisolaran Fleet four centuries to reach Earth. Humanity has four centuries to prepare for its eventual destruction.

Dark Forest picks up where Three Body left off, with Earth in a state of disbelief and panic. Due to advancements in hibernation technology, several main characters are able to hibernate and reawaken closer to the so-called Doomsday Battle. This plot device perfectly illustrates Liu’s literary genius. By following these hibernating characters, Dark Forest spans two centuries of Earth history, giving it a surreal feeling of depth and longevity.

The imaginative scope of Dark Forest is immense. Liu’s portrayal of future Earth is perceptive in the sense that he clearly extrapolates from several existing social trends, taking them to their most extreme conclusion. Humans are surrounded by a constant stream of information, with virtually every object connected to the internet. However, there is a realism in Liu’s portrayal that is deeply refreshing. Future Earth is neither utopian or dystopian, which allows the hibernating characters to quickly acclimatise. Liu’s understated prose allows the reader to adjust quickly as well. Time is not wasted marvelling over new technology or social changes. No, this is a book first and foremost concerned with advancing the scientific concepts and ideas driving the plot.

Although Liu has been criticised for an allegedly “wooden” writing style, I appreciated his commitment to exploring concepts above all else. That being said, character development in the Dark Forest is an improvement upon the Three Body Problem. The Remembrance of Earth’s Past is classic sci-fi, with entire chapters devoted to detailing scientific concepts. This can be tiring, but the reader is always rewarded.

Although Liu himself refuses to be drawn on this, his work clearly possesses commentary on domestic and international politics. Dark Forest exhibits this most explicitly, with the title of the book actually referring to what’s known in international relations as the security dilemma. Given that country A cannot know country B’s intentions, and vice versa, it makes sense to err on the side of hostility. Liu’s portrayal is deeply Hobbesian. Life in the cosmos is nasty, brutish and short.

Overall, Liu’s work is the perfect bridge from non-fiction into fiction. Do not expect dazzlingly, poetic language. Do expect to have your imagination pushed to its limits. Although I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not already a sci-fi fan. Unless you’re taken in by the scientific concepts, it will be hard to persevere through the drier elements of Liu’s writing.

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