Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: "The Dark Forest" by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest (2008)
Cixin Liu (1963)
512 pages

[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.

For more reviews of books of Science Fiction, click a link to my bookshelves of:
General Science Fiction or Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review: "Blutsbrüder" ("Blood Brothers") by Ernst Haffner

Blutsbrüder: Ein Berliner Cliquenroman (1932)
Ernst Haffner (1900-?)

260 pages

 A novel published to critical acclaim in 1932, only to be pulled from the shelves a year later and burned. An author about whom little is known, the last trace a summons to a Nazi government ministry on the eve of WWII. The sudden rediscovery of his novel many decades later, and the recognition of the book as a significant contribution to a little understood aspect of German history.

What sounds like the basis for a dramatic work of fiction actually outlines the real-life history of the novel Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers and its author Ernst Haffner. Published in 1932 as Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Youth on the Road to Berlin), the book was banned a year later, after Hitler and the National Socialist party took power in January 1933. Included soon after in the bonfires of the Nazi book burnings, the novel disappeared from public visibility and consciousness all together.

According to a 2015 review in the New York Times on the publication of an English translation of the book, a cultural sociologist studying Germany of the 1920’s and 30’s rediscovered the novel in the late 1970’s, but it drifted again into obscurity for several decades, until coming to the attention of a German publisher who, upon reading it, “was fascinated by its immediacy and its lack of melodrama … as an historical document, it is exceptional.” That publisher subsequently released a German edition of the book in 2013.

Of the author himself little is apparently known. According to a preface that accompanies the German re-issue of the book, Haffner worked as a journalist, and possibly a social worker, and lived in Berlin from 1925 to 1933. The last trace of him in the public record is a summons to the Nazi Ministry of Culture in the late 1930’s.

Haffner sets his novel in the Berlin he witnessed in the late 1920’s, a city where the wealthy and middle class lived surrounded by many who struggled in crushing poverty, particularly among the young. The slaughterhouse of the First World War and the hyperinflation Germany experienced in the early 1920’s had destroyed many families, leaving a generation of young people with little or no support. From broken homes and prison-like orphanages, teenagers escaped to the big cities to make their own way. Haffner’s story tells of one such group of boys in their late teens who banded together as a way to survive, calling themselves the Blood Brothers.

Though escaping to the streets of a big city gave the boys a certain kind of freedom, they quickly found themselves constrained on all sides by their illegal status, a lack of education or training, and the high unemployment of the depression era. These teens were in fact but the youngest members of a roiling mass of homeless and unemployed who wandered the streets of Germany’s big cities in search of food and shelter.

In the novel, Haffner exposes this underbelly of society through the boys’ struggles. He builds the story as a series of chapters that are essentially vignettes: short scenes or sequences of scenes, each demonstrating some aspect of the boys’ lives. We experience life in an orphanage, and the dramatic attempts to escape; the never-ending search for a bit of money to be able to afford a place to sleep and some food, beer and cigarettes; the unending risk of being picked up by the police, and the helpless drift through the legal system when they did find themselves caught up in it. The limited supply of opportunities to earn a few coins as a day laborer being quickly exhausted by the masses of unemployed, many resort to thievery or prostitution to keep themselves alive. Even those who attempt some honest labor live in constant risk, since they are underage and have no papers.

Though a rough plot drives the story forward, Haffner mostly uses it as a means to describe what he has seen on the streets of Berlin among the generally invisible masses of the poor. Largely telling the story through the actions and dialogue of the boys themselves, he does occasionally turn directly to the reader, reinforcing for us the almost insurmountable challenges these homeless youth faced. At these points in the story, a reader can almost hear him thinking: “In case you are not fully recognizing the true depth of the shameful existence these children lead …"

Such asides could easily distract from and derail the plot, but they never do. Haffner keeps them short and pointed, and so, instead of undermining the story, they help broaden our understanding. His telling is aided too by his approach to presenting the story. Though the ugliness that surrounds and engulfs these boys (as well as the millions of other boys and girls, men and women, they represent) rings clear in every paragraph, Haffner presents his characters with an empathy and sympathy that avoids making them seem pathetic, or their lives completely hopeless.

Neither are the boys presented as, say, noble savages, having some sort of innate, uneducated goodness. Rather, in a manner that ultimately makes the novel grippingly effective, the young boys appear as real people; they have been dealt a bad hand by circumstance and fate, and in response make choices any of us might make --- sometimes good, sometimes bad --- in an attempt to survive another day. Haffner’s engaging novel thus provides not only a look back at a particular time in history, but, beyond that, an examination of the human ability to survive soul-crushing circumstances.

Other reviews / information:

Fritz Stern has written several fascinating essays that in part describe the interwar period in Germany, in his collections Dreams and Delusions: The Drama of German History, and Das feine Schweigen(The Polite Silence).  Follow the links to my reviews of those works.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf