Discussing Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest
Posted December 22, 2015on:
I finally got around to reading Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest earlier this month. My better half read it a few months ago, and I nagged him into writing a joint review with me. Well, more a conversation than a joint review. Epic spoilers ahead! Or, as Better Half says “If you’re on the no spoilers ship, better watch out, there’s rocks ahead”. He thinks he’s forgotten most of this book. He’s wrong. Here’s what we thought of Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest.
Andrea: You and I are both drawn towards character driven narratives. The Dark Forest is even less character driven than The Three Body Problem. I had a tough time getting into the story, because it was hard for me to grab onto any of these characters. Did you have a tough time too?
Mike: Somewhat of a tough time, it was easier for me as I chose to read this as an historian viewing the book as ‘future history’. Then, I could just follow the ebb and tide of historical forces as the story unfolded.
I liked the hope given to the Wallfacers, the unreality of the projects, and that one of them actually does save the Earth.
Andrea: What’s that phrase? Necessity is the mother of invention? Humanity is desperate, so we’re willing to put our faith in crazy things. All the other Wallfacers had these ridiculously complex ideas, and the one that saves the Earth seems so simple. Talk about playing the long game! Being given limitless money and told “Save the World”, it was interesting to see what these people did with their funds and resources. Reminded me a little of the Selacao (how the hell do spell that?) from the anime Eden of the East. But the Wallfacers take advantage of their situation, they can spend money on silly stuff, and say “it’s part of the plan”. Many of the Wallfacers had a similar “ultimate plan”. Were you surprised?
Mike: I also saw the Eden of the East connection, one of my favorite animes! The Wallfacers, with one exception, chose brute force methods to win a war, which is exactly what a war winner does not choose. Subtlety was only chosen by one facer, people scoffed, and he won.
The Wallbreakers seemed a little silly. If they had been about learning what the Wallfacers were doing, or assassinating them I would have liked them, but they just walked up to the ‘facers and say “I am your wallbreaker, you are defeated.” What, really? It made very little sense.
Andrea: Aren’t the Sophons around to hear everything? The Wallbreakers always verbalize the Wallfacer’s plan in detail, and the eavesdropping Sophons send that info back to the Tri-Solarans. What I had trouble swallowing about the Wallbreaker plan was that for the most part these people knew next to nothing about their assigned Wallfacer. And they were supposed to guess this person’s secret? I dunno, it felt very plot devicy to me.
Mike: Yeah, agree.
The Dark Forest idea fascinated me as both a scientist and fan of science fiction. As an historian I know that villages were often afraid of the people living on the other side of the hill, and we still see that with fear of east or south Asians, or of Muslims. And Cixin Liu is correct in that in a universe where things are immensely further away, and the people are not even your race, how would we, or any others react?
Will we take a chance or will we hide in the Dark Forest?
Andrea: What’s this “were afraid” past tense? Most people are still distrustful of the “other”, of anyone who isn’t like them. I always love first contact stories – how will we respond to someone who isnt’ human? What if their goals aren’t our goals? What if their technology is way superior to ours? Every author treats these questions different, and I liked seeing what Cixin Liu did with it. And he’s 100% right – any other species we meet would be immensely far away.
I read the last chunk of this book while half asleep, and you know I get all sorts of weird ideas when I’m half asleep. This book triggered this idea: The Tri-Solarans challenged us to solve the three body problem. If we don’t solve it, we die. The universe challenges all space faring races to solve the dark forest problem. If we don’t solve it, everyone dies. Now I’m super curious about the 3rd book. If three body is the first problem to solve, and dark forest a problem on a larger scale to solve, what is the 3rd problem?
You kept saying this book reminded you of Brin’s Existence. How come? We’ve both read a ton of first contact stories. How does The Dark Forest and Three Body Problem compare to others you’ve read over the years?
Mike: Both books were about winning through subtlety. If you do not recognize a dagger aimed at your throat you have a hard time defending against the thrust. I know Existence received a great deal of criticism on release, but I appreciated the subtlety of the alien ‘attack’.
In Dark Forest, what if the UN had a second wallfacer project that decided the best way to lull the Tri-Solarans was to have three useless Wallfacer projects? Great camouflage.
I enjoyed our characters waking up 200 years later and being told ‘Oh, we don’t fear the Tri-Solarans any longer, our space navy is way too strong for them to beat’. And then one Tri-Solaran probe destroys that entire navy.
Andrea: What’s even crazier is the non-judgement the people from the past face. Zhang Beihai expected to be judged for what he did, and instead he is celebrated, he’s in the history books. Society went from nervousness and anxiety about our resources, and no one quite believing this would ever work, to society being totally convinced that our technology was awesome, and we’d fry those pathetic Tri-Solarans as soon as their probes got to our backyard! I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about how society changed, I mean look at where humanity was 200 years ago. Weren’t we burning witches?
The probe scene was absolutely freakin’ insane.
Mike: found the naval officer story line to be the coldest in the book. His defeatism, and willingness to murder thousands of his fellow naval crew members in the name of preserving humanity was very hard for me to read. Is Cixin Liu’s world the best we can hope for from humanity?
Andrea: It was hard for me to read, but to be honest, I also felt very detached. We get to know the Naval Officer a bit, but all those other soldiers and people on the spaceships, I didn’t know any of those people, I had zero investment in them. I was shocked out of my chair about how most of the Navy captains are thinking the same thing, and it becomes a game of who can push the button first. But the sacrifice of all those lives? I felt completely completed detached and uninvested. That’s my issue with stories that have so little characterization – at the end, when lives are on the line, I just didn’t care.
I’ve bitched about the lack of character driven narrative, but damn does The Dark Forest have some awesome ideas. What did you think of the presented scientific ideas and the massive scale astrophysics?
Mike: Agree on the lack of attachment to the naval story line, could have been skipped as far as I am concerned. The only concern I have about some of the amazing ideas, is that if the Tri-Solarans were so advanced I am unsure whether they would need to take someone else’s solar system. Their technology was not just better it was on another scale from ours.
Andrea: So when is the third book coming out? Also, should I rename this blog “Two Nerds Got Married”?