Review- Liu, “The Dark Forest”


Liu Cixin, “The Dark Forest” (2008) (translated from the Chinese by Joel Martinsen) – At the end of “The Dark Forest,” we’re something like 900 pages in to Liu’s trilogy of contact between Earth and an alien civilization, and no Earthling has laid eyes on a Trisolaran! But in many respects, that’s beside the point. Here, Liu provides a new take on one of the classic themes that scifi tackles and that literary fiction occasionally dips a dilatory toe in: the horror of scale, the disjuncture between the sense of proportion — in terms of space, time, complexity, diversity, our own expectations, you name it — that we carry with us and what our discoveries tell us about the universe.

The book sprawls across multiple centuries and a number of attempts to come to grips with the coming invasion. They call Liu a “hard” scifi writer, as in he tries to keep things closely tethered to real science. I don’t know science well enough to say how much he does or doesn’t, but it seems science-y enough… though major new technologies come about at pretty convenient times. So cryogenic hibernation allows viewpoint characters — like feckless sociologist and possible savior Luo Ji — to hang around various important points in the four hundred years between when Earth discovers the aliens and when they show up.

A lot of interesting stuff — anti-alien schemes mooted (by “Wallfacers,” charged with coming up with planetary defense schemes in secret) and betrayed (by “Wallbreakers,” who aren’t the Kool-Aid Man no matter how much it sounds like it), tragic failures, rises and falls of global societies, terrible space massacres — occurs but the broad scale is also setup for the point Liu it trying to make. Jeet Heer, of all people, wrote something interesting recently where he said “hard” scifi, even more than “soft,” almost invariably has a religious charge to it. It reflects the desire to see science and technology take the role religion once did in promising transcendence.

Liu is deeply skeptical of humanist values in the face of the problems of scale upon which he built this series. The thing that saves Earth — for a time — isn’t any particularly clever scheme or bold move. It’s Luo Ji, the last Wallfacer (who mostly used his powers to acquire a waifu — Liu’s gender perspective isn’t much more encouraging than the rest of his worldview — and mess around) who comes to see the Hobbesian nature of galactic-scale life. He saves the day by essentially holding both Earth and Trisolaris hostage by the simple expedient of threatening to advertise their position to the wider universe and all of its predators. This is the titular “Dark Forest” — the universe.

That sounds depressing — it is depressing — but from Augustine’s day to Flannery O’Connor’s to Liu’s, some of the people with the most depressing worldviews hold out some of the highest hopes of existential deliverance from outside of consciousness and ego. Somewhere between emptiness and love, Liu carves out a space for hope at the end of this generally quite dark, “Empire Strikes Back” part of his trilogy. All of that is a little too Buddhist for me to really get whether it makes sense or not but it works pretty well as far as these novels go. ****’

Review- Liu, “The Dark Forest”

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