Book Review : The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

, in Books, Science Fiction

The Dark Forest Cover
The Dark Forest (黑暗森林)
By Liu Cixin
Translated by Joel Martinsen
Published by Tor Books
ISBN: 978-1784971595

"Humanity still has secrets, in the inner world that each of us possesses. The sophons can understand human language, and they can read printed texts and information on every kind of computer storage media at ultrahigh speeds, but they can’t read human thoughts. So long as we do not communicate with the outside world, every individual keeps things secret forever from the sophons. This is the basis of the Wallfacer Project."

Excerpt from The Dark Forest (黑暗森林) by Liu Cixin

Where we left things at the end of The Three Body Problem (previously), things were looking grim for humanity. Although it would be 400 years before the Trisolaran fleet would arrive, there was little chance of mounting a significant defense due to the millions of particle-sized sophons spies zipping around the Earth.

The UN decides on a bold plan - delegate! Given enough resources, a single person could devise a tricky stratagem to defeat the Trisolaran's without revealing the ploy. Hedging humanity's bets, the UN nominates 4 such people (the Wallfacers) and gives each absolute authority to do whatever they need to do to carry out their plans.

Against a backdrop of social changes bought on by the threat of the Trisolaran fleet and the new technology of long term hibernation, much of The Dark Forest is concerned with the desperate plans that the Wallfacers attempt to set in motion. Each plan is crazier than the last and each comes with a satisfying denouncement as Trisolaran agents reveal and neuter them one by one.

The Three Body Problem was packed with all sorts of tasty ideas and The Dark Forest is only slightly of the boil in this regard. There is a lot less jumping around and the Trisolarans themselves are only present for a few scenes. This is a shame, the alien passages were my favorite parts of the first book. Instead we get a long character study of the mopiest global savior imaginable.

If The Three Body Problem was a collection of interlocking short stories, The Dark Forest feels like an attempt at a proper novel. This transition has not been entirely successful - characterization was not the author's strong suit in the first book and it has not improved here. The chapters concerned with fleshing out the main players are a little bit of a chore to get through. But rest assumed that The Dark Forest does eventually get back to having its cast perform outlandishly entertaining actions while spouting comic-book dialog.

I was hoping for some epic space battles based on the setup and The Dark Forest doesn't disappoint but the main focus is Earth-based as the far off but inevitable annihilation starts to weigh heavily the human psyche. The introduction of hibernation cleverly lets the story jump forward decades at a time as plans and counter-plans are set in motion that pay off over hundreds of years. Once again I got a real 50s sci-fi vibe, where all sorts of ideas were tossed into the mix.

Much of the gleeful enjoyment I got from reading The Dark Forest was seeing just how crazy the unpredictable plot could get so it was disappointing that the ultimate resolution was so clearly telegraphed through the general theme of the novel. Things are set up well for another sequel which I have already purchased so I guess that counts as a successful conclusion.

If you liked The Three Body Problem then The Dark Forest is a slightly weaker dose of the same thing, but it is still quite the trip.


I have posts on all three books in the Remembrance of Earth's Past (地球往事) series: The Three-Body Problem The Dark Forest Death's End