Book Review: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Book Review: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

You can't hear me, but if you could, you'd hear me sigh. I have conflicting feelings on this book.

Let's start with the positive, shall we?

There's a truly excellent plot. I loved the concept of the first book in the series, The Three Body Problem, and nothing's changed. An alien civilization is coming to Earth to take our planet, driven by their inability to remain on their own. They send quantum-entangled machines to our world in advance to metaphorically curbstomp our physics research, and then they begin the 400 year journey. Given that 400 year timeframe and constant, unceasing surveillance, what can humanity possibly do to save itself?

It's such a fascinating question because we don't normally have that kind of huge timeframe in alien invasion films/books - nor do we normally think on such a long scale ever, basically. And it allows for far more elegant solutions than some first contact films/books (looking at you, Independence Day). 

It also allows Liu to explore the darker side of humanity and all the things that can possibly go wrong when the stakes are so high and four people are given the power and resources to effect massive change, no questions asked. In the book, the re-named and re-purposed UN gives four people the title of Wallfacer and a single goal - to generate a plan for the defense of humanity and to keep it secret from everyone, right up until the aliens' defeat. The Wallfacer Project is a wonderful plot device because it keeps the characters and the reader confused and guessing. It also moves the story along as first one Wallfacer, then another, then another fall prey to their Wallbreakers (humans who welcome the alien invasion and help the aliens, who don't really understand the concept of deception, to work out the Wallfacer plans).

I also love that the salvation of humanity comes from a deep understanding of sociology on cosmic level (the eponymous "dark forest"). I studied sociology in college, so to see my field become important to the plot of a sci-fi novel was extremely gratifying. The resolution of this novel was exceedingly satisfying - so satisfying, in fact, that the series really could have ended here.

Unlike many other readers, I had no problem with the pacing of the book. I didn't find it to be particularly slow in the beginning, nor was it as physics-heavy as the first book was. The plot device of hibernation gave the book a fun way to jump decades without too much trouble and some of the scenes were really exciting and just plain fascinating to read - namely, the space assassination and the space massacres (can't call them battles, really).

But now we have to talk about something that I didn't like: the characters. Liu really seems to struggle with characters, because The Three Body Problem was equally as bad on this front. I could talk about the plot of Three Body all day, but ask me to name one of the characters and I'll give you a blank stare. I have a feeling I'll feel the same way about this book in a few months. 

His characters are just...dull. They don't really have distinguishing characteristics, they aren't likeable and they just aren't exciting. They exist solely so that the plot can move; I get the impression that if you could write a novel without characters, Liu would. They also don't really grow or change in any way. The main character, Luo Ji, does ever so slightly, but it's really minute. Probably the best, most interesting character is Zhang Beihai, but I was SO disappointed with how his arc ended. 

As a sidebar to this, holy misogyny, Batman! There are NO female main characters. Not one. Forget the Bechdel test, let's get even ONE main female lead. The closest we get is the female starship captain (or maybe the wife of one of the Wallfacers), but she doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way through the book. Meanwhile, in its opening pages, a girl who has been sleeping with the main character gets killed. He can't even remember her name initially, and even after he does remember (after she gets hit by a car), the author doesn't bother to tell us. And are you seriously telling me that when you have to pick four people to save humanity, you wouldn't pick EVEN ONE woman? Just to get a different perspective? Maybe I'm spoiled after my last two reads, but damn. Between the boring male characters and the lack of female ones, I really struggled with parts of this novel.

Despite that, the plot is enough to keep me onboard to read Death's End, the third book in the series which arrives in English later this year. But I really hope that this one doesn't win the Hugo like Three Body did - it has too many problems to take that kind of award.

Grade: 3.5/5

Memorable Quote:

“The real universe is just that black.” Luo Ji waved a hand, feeling the darkness as if stroking velvet. “The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life - another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod - there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people.”
— The Dark Forest, pg. 484
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