Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest generally operates on a galactic scale. But it starts with the perspective of an ant.
The diminutive point of view is more than just an authorial flex (although it’s certainly that too). In The Three-Body Problem, the first book in Liu’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, an alien race called the Trisolarans cuts off communications with humanity by declaring, “You’re bugs!” This isn’t just an idle insult. The Trisolarans are on their way to Earth, with far superior technology and a burning need to find a new world to colonize. If that means squishing a few (human) cockroaches to make room, so be it.
Fortunately, it’s a long journey from Trisolaris (the invaders’ home planet): the bulk of the Trisolarans’ fleet won’t arrive for four hundred years. In theory, that gives humanity plenty of time to prepare. But the Trisolarans deployed scouts that double as technology blockers—humans can no longer use particle accelerators to obtain the deep understanding of physics necessary to compete against such an advanced species.
The Dark Forest picks up as this realization sets in. Doomsday may be four centuries off, but few people think it can be avoided. Nevertheless, most of the world begins mobilizing for an interstellar war they expect to lose.
Liu shows us this through new eyes (after he moves beyond the ant’s). Almost none of the characters from The Three-Body Problem carry over in a significant way, with the notable exception of Shi Qiang, a police officer who played a supporting role in the first book. Instead, we follow new players like Luo Ji, a run-of-the-mill academic, and Zhang Beihai, a political commissar in the Chinese navy.
I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao (the protagonists of The Three-Body Problem). But the shift of focus didn’t bother me much either. This series is driven far more by ideas than characters.
One of the central thought exercises is working through how humanity would respond to an existential-yet-far-off threat. (The parallels with climate change are intriguing, except in this case, the Trisolarans represent a sentient, malevolent danger that’s harder to deny.) Apathy and defeatism manifest early, and Zhang and others work hard to cultivate a more optimistic fighting spirit.
Liu is also excellent at projecting scientific progress in a way that seems plausible. The Dark Forest shows us some potential near-term developments like space elevators and then jumps ahead two hundred years to show us the types of leaps—touch screens on every surface; inexhaustible energy delivered via microwaves—that might be possible with sustained effort.
At least one of his forecasts has already proven false, though. Liu wrote The Dark Forest in 2008, and one of its early movers and shakers is a fictional Venezuelan leader who “carried forward the Bolivarian Revolution instigated by Hugo Chavez … boosting the country’s power across the board and—for a time—turning Venezuela into a city on a hill, a symbol of equality, justice, and prosperity for the world.” If only. (Whatever you think of Chavez, it’s impossible not to lament the state of misery Venezuela devolved into following his death.)
A few other devices strained credulity less tragically (like a spontaneous, near-telepathic exchange during a climactic moment late in the book). I also wish The Dark Forest had a more dynamic female character. There are women in prominent roles—leaders of international organizations and captains of starships—but they don’t get much time on the page. The active cast members are all male.
But I still found The Dark Forest consistently interesting, and it ended in a more resolved place than I expected for the middle book in a trilogy. I’m curious to see where Book 3 goes—and what else Liu can dream up for me to marvel at.
Note: Since the translation uses the English versions of the author’s name and his characters’, I did the same in this review. For more reviews like it, sign up for my monthly newsletter.