The Dark Forest (2008)
Cixin Liu (1963)
[Note: although I make it a point to not include spoilers in my reviews, this is the second book in a trilogy, and it's not possible to write about it without including some context from the first book, The Three-Body Problem. So, if you haven't read that first book yet, I suggest you jump back to my review here.]
Earth prepares for invasion from Trisolaris, a planet in the three-sun system of nearby Alpha Centauri, in Cixin Liu’s sequel to his 2006 novel The Three-Body Problem. (My review of that opening book in the series here.)
The Dark Forest opens just a few years into the crisis sparked by the events in the first book. Though it will take several centuries for the main Trisolarian invasion force to reach the Solar System, they have managed to send monitoring technology in advance that prevents Earth’s physicists from performing experiments on the fundamental laws of nature, freezing understanding of these laws at early 21st century levels. Thus the nations of Earth must prepare for the coming battle by developing its technology to the limits possible by the present-day knowledge of physics. Though much can be achieved in this context, it quickly becomes clear that Earth will face the Trisolarians at a significant disadvantage.
The first half of the novel takes place in the decades immediately after the world’s peoples become aware of the crisis. Amidst a rising feeling of hopelessness among Earth’s population, some argue that humans should escape the Solar System and emigrate to the stars. In an effort to combat these defeatist thoughts, governments come together to focus the world’s attention and resources on the development of advanced technology, and a space defense force.
As compliment to the world-wide military preparations, government leaders also create the Wallfacer program, intended to exploit the one known weakness of the Trisolarian monitoring technology: though it can track everything physically communicated by humans, it cannot read human thoughts. Tasked with developing independent plans to defeat the Trisolarians and save the Earth, the four selected Wallfacers receive nearly unlimited resources, and are purposefully given little oversight, since as soon as they would reveal their actual plan to anyone, the Trisolarians would also discover it.
These parameters of the program make each Wallfacer’s work and intentions largely unaccountable to anyone on Earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, their personal histories and predilections mix with the overwhelming nature of the situation, leading them to radical solutions that result in a seemingly unending string of unintended consequences. When the story then jumps forward 200 years into the future, on the eve of the first contact with an advanced Trisolarian probe, the results of the Wallfacer’s efforts play out in dramatic and unexpected ways.
This sequel has a more deliberate pace than the opening book, a consequence of the much more psychological orientation of its plot. Earth’s best hope relies on a group of people each of whose main weapon is that they keep their plans as cryptic and secret as possible, and Liu builds the story around the Wallfacers’ efforts and the Trisolarian attempts to disrupt them. Liu also explores the varying reactions Earth’s people have to the discovery of intelligent life beyond the Solar System, and in particular, intelligent life that is bent on our destruction.
Late in the story, with the entrance of the first Trisolarian automated drone ship into the Solar System, the pace picks up, as events come to a head. In the wake of this first, dramatic encounter with an artificially created object from a distant civilization, we also gain an understanding of the fundamental outlines of the universe Liu has created in this series. He hints at these deeper truths in the opening pages, and finally fleshes them out in the closing pages of this second volume in the series. A “dark forest,” indeed…
Other reviews / information:
I was disappointed to discover that I’m going to have to wait until September of this year for the third book in the series to be published in English…
In an interview with Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast, the physicist David Deutsch discusses the Fermi Paradox, which asks the question: where are the extraterrestrials? Cixin Liu has one answer to that question; Deutsch and Harris consider others. For Deutsch's comments, and a link to that podcast, see my post here.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
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