Humanity’s Fight or Flight Response: a Review of Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest (2008) by Lui Cixin

“Yan Yan, do you know what the greatest expression of regard for a race or civilization is?”

“No, what?”

“Annihilation. That’s the highest respect a civilization can receive. They would only feel threatened by a civilization they truly respect.”

As with the first book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy—The Three-Body Problem—I think the less you know about what the titles allude to, the more you’ll enjoy the books. I believe that if you know what they are referencing, the central mysteries of both books became wholly transparent. I know that stories should not live or die upon the revelation of their secrets, but there are not a lot that the Three-Body Problem and The Dark Forest had going for them as novels—at least where the English editions are concerned. The writing is functional, but it’s not going to win any awards for style (thought that may be due to the translation). The characters feel flatter than flat noodles, and they rarely function beyond their role as agents of the plot. While Mr Liu’s enthusiasm for the subjects he writes about is palpable, he favours having characters give grand and extended expository speeches rather than employ a more organic way to communicate his ideas. So, in view of all those shortcomings, I feel that the books rely on the mysteries and the science a lot to keep readers turning the page. The ideal reader for both books, I feel, is one who knows nothing about their plots and is mostly ignorant of the scientific concepts that drive them.

I also fancy that Ken Liu did a better job with the translation than Joel Martinsen did, but at the same time, I had a good laugh at Martinsen directly translating the parts where a character “inquired” after people’s mothers in a fit of fury,

His heart surged with a towering fury such as he had never before experienced. He wanted to shout hysterically, to inquire after Say’s mother and the UN’s mother, to inquire after the mothers of all of the delegates at the special session and on the PDC, to inquire after the mothers of the entire human race, and finally to inquire after the nonexistent mothers of the Trisolarans. He wanted to jump up and down and smash things, to sweep aside the documents, globe, and bamboo pencil holder on Say’s desk, and then tear the blue flag to shreds

I imagined the original Chinese text must be referring to tā mā de (他媽的) which literally means “his/her mother”, but it is often use as a coarse interjection like “fuck” or “damnit”. He also directly translated 鸟话 as “bird-speak”, which is a Chinese expression referring to bullshit or nonsense. While I can’t read Chinese, I do speak it so I understood exactly what Martinsen was getting at. I wonder if a reader who is unfamiliar with Chinese expressions would struggle.

Now, I cannot discuss The Dark Forest without intruding into SPOILER territory, and I shall do it in two parts. First, I am going to spoil The Three-Body Problem. By the end of that book we learned that:

  • The technologically superior Trisolarans are on their way to invade Earth in a few hundo years.
  • The Trisolaran’s proton-sized supercomputers called sophons (developed by “unfolding” a proton’s extra dimensions and etching integrated circuits onto them) is interfering with super-collider experiments on Earth, preventing humanity from furthering their understanding of fundamental sciences and thus, arresting the development of truly new advancements in science (so humans wouldn’t outrun the Trisolarans in the arms race by the time they arrive).

We quickly learn at the start of The Dark Forest that the sophons can basically be anywhere on Earth and see everything, and nothing can be kept secret from the Trisolarans—except in the minds of individual humans, so the premise of the book deals with the UN introducing the Wallfacer Project. Basically, 3 preeminent figures on Earth (and one random Chinese guy) were selected by the UN to develop secret strategies to fight the incoming Trisolarans. They would have near unlimited resources and need not justify their use of these resources to anyone. And if what they ask for does not harm anyone, their requests are complied with, no questions asked. Luo Ji is that one random Chinese academic who was mysteriously selected for the project, and it is amusing to see him being trapped in this Catch-22 situation. He can’t leave the Wallfacer project because the UN will just interpret it as part of his plan.

“What are you doing now?”

“I’m your day-to-day liaison with the Planetary Defense Council.”

“But I’m not a Wallfacer anymore!” Luo Ji shouted. Then he asked, “Has the media announced the Wallfacer Project?”

“To the entire world.”

“And my refusing to be a Wallfacer?”

“It’s in there too, of course.”

“What did it say?”

“It was quite simple. ‘After the conclusion of the UN special session, Luo Ji declared his refusal of the Wallfacer position and mission.'”

“Then what are you still doing here?”

“I’m in charge of your day-to-day liaisons.”

Most of The Dark Forest‘s plot follow the actions and planning of these 4 Wallfacers, while the human allies of the Trisolarans work to expose these Wallfacers’ plans. Funnily enough, it reminded me of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, particularly in how the strategies are set up, how smart people are pitted against one another, and how the plans are explained in detail later by their Wallbreakers who could often magically circumvent UN security just to have a face-to-face expository chats with their assigned Wallfacers. Our rando Wallfacer Luo Ji, whose name means “logic” (逻辑) in Mandarin, is clearly the designated protagonist from the start and he basically took advantage of the no-questions-asked policy of the Wallfacer Project to get himself set up in a life of comfort and luxury, and everyone was divided between thinking Luo Ji as a freeloading deadbeat or suspecting there was actual method to his madness. Of course, if you already knew what The Dark Forest refers to, you would already have an inkling of the explanation behind some of his actions.

But this is as far as I can meaningfully discuss this book without SPOILING The Dark Forest itself, so consider yourself fully warned from this point on.

The Dark Forest hypothesis is not a new thing that Mr Liu came up with. There have been many variations of this idea that had been proposed for decades to explain the Fermi Paradox, which is a concept that I had drilled into me by the many science podcasts I listen to. There are billions of stars in the Milky Way which are similar to the sun, and in all likelihood, many of these stars would have Earth-like worlds orbiting them. Multiplying that by the number of galaxies in the universe and considering also how many of these galaxies have stars much, much older than our sun, the possibility that there would be life in other parts of the universe (even civilisations capable of interstellar travel) would be overwhelming. So, why have we not seen any evidence of their existence? Not even a probe or a signal? There are many attempts at explaining this paradox, from postulating that intelligent life must be extremely rare to the possibility that there are expiration dates to civilisations (humans themselves came close to mutually-assured destruction during the Cold War). Mr Liu proposed the idea that the reason we have not discovered alien life is because the only logical way for any civilisation to survive in the universe is to remain hidden, and to preemptively destroy any other competing civilisation when any is found. The universe may be teeming with life, but they weren’t detected because each of them is “an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost” in the Dark Forest of the universe. The ones which are still alive have hidden themselves well. The ones that called attention to themselves have already been eliminated. This doesn’t bode well for us humans since we already sent a few probes out there carrying gold plates telling the universe where we are and what we are like. The late Stephen Hawking had a similarly pessimistic outlook on humanity’s first meeting with alien life.

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi was not the first person to propose the Fermi Paradox but it’s named after him anyway because he brought it to prominence. Similarly, I notice that the idea that the universe might be a place of stealth and infinite hostility is already inextricably linked to the term “The Dark Forest” that Liu coined and popularised, and it will likely stand as one of sci-fi’s contributions to actual scientific discourse. I would like to hear what philosophers and mathematicians think, since this is basically the prisoner’s dilemma… IN SPACE.

Even though I remarked that the revelation of Luo Ji’s plan held no mystery for me, I really did enjoy the final parts of the book when it appeared that Luo Ji could no longer put his plan into action thanks to the arrival of the Trisolaran probe, because it returned me to that happy place where I had no idea where the story would go next. Even though I saw it coming, my jaw still dropped along with the collective jaw of all the characters in the book when a single Trisolaran probe reduced 2,000 ships in Earth’s fleet into space trash. There is another plot following another character named Zhang Beihai from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy dealing with the psychological toll that defeatist mentality is having on the defenders of Earth that is also interesting to to follow. I am personally very interested in the fate of the two ships that deserted, and am keen to see where they would end up in the third book.

I did think it is a little icky since Luo Ji essentially abused his Wallfacer status to first find a girl of his dreams and then use his unlimited resources to woo her—and succeeded. While I am willing to go along with most of Mr Liu’s projection of our knowledge of science, I did have trouble accepting that our minds work all the way down at the quantum level since everything we know so far about our brains and our thoughts, and also of quantum mechanics, suggest that this is impossible (or if you are an optimist, vanishingly unlikely). The quantum processes of the brain that Penrose and Hameroff suggested are mostly discredited these days. And this might be a little nitpicky, but I am not a fan of the term “Wallfacer” and have trouble believing that that’s the name the UN would pick. Perhaps it sounds more poetic in the original Chinese text.

The English translation of this book is… fine. The inelegant way the story was told did it no favours either. I think the main draw of the book remained the scientific concepts the author explored and played with, and if you lack interest even in that, there The Dark Forest has very little to recommend it as entertainment. However, if you are anything like me and have always been fascinated by how humanity’s first contact experience with extraterrestrials would play out, you would be pleased by how deeply this book explores the subject while still giving us a thoroughly satisfying climax for this middle chapter of the trilogy. By the time I wrote this, I have already started on the third and final book, Death’s End, and my hopes have never been higher.

Rating: 4.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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