Fiction Reviews

The Dark Forest

(2008 / 2015) Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, 512pp,ISBN 978-1-78497159-5


I had been eager to read this one. Cixin Liu came with a big reputation as China’s pre-eminent science fiction author and his first novel in this trilogy. The Three Body Problem, won the 2015 Hugo Award for 'Best Novel'. This is the follow up book, starting near-future and stretching through the four hundred years it takes for the invading Trisolarian fleet to reach Earth and our greatest minds to collapse in their own ineptitude. That’s not really even a spoiler, because our hopelessness is preordained both by the previous book and the opening metaphor of this one, and besides, the end doesn’t quite pan out that way.

Any good? Well I did not really enjoy it, but that may have been down to the translation. Liu, or his translator, dwells too much on odd science fiction concepts for my liking, and nothing anyone does seems to make any sense. Most of the characters are men, everyone smokes too much, convenient plot devices abound (the aliens somehow put a technological brake on scientific development so we can’t catch up with their marvelousness, for instance) and nobody’s very likeable.

Plot basics. Earth has given its basic position away to our nearest neighbours, who turn out to be V/Man Who Fell to Earth -type colonist conquerors. No-one has cracked faster than light travel yet, though, so we get a chance to watch the enemy fleet arrive, slowly, over 40 years. There is an advance party all around though: Sophons, all-pervasive energy beings which relay our every thought back to home base and somehow stop us inventing and making clever things. Liu forgets to properly explain how they do that, though (presumably in the first book [Editor: correct, it is.]) so this device makes little sense.

There is an interesting twist with the Sophons and Trisolarians, though. They are incapable of lying and don’t even understand the concept. Everything is open and transparent. That should make them very beatable by us cunning sneaky Earthlings, whether or not the Solarians will allow us to make clever new things, but instead we go into a panic, assume all is hopeless (because the Solarians will know all our plans) and entrust our fate in the hands of four ‘Wallfacers’: clever(ish) people who will think up dastardly alien-destroying schemes but tell no-one what they are up to. The Wallfacers are initially at the centre of this book, but their efforts mostly peter out, and most of their plans seem to confuse saving humanity by destroying it.

Makes no sense. Why do not we just build a fleet of spaceships and get the hell away? Liu thinks society would rail against this idea as defeatist, and just to illustrate the point (and this is an intsy bit of a spoiler) when some people do eventually head out in the opposite direction to the aliens, they end up tearing each other apart (which proves their moral badness. Traitors!).

More to the point, why don’t we use the 400 years we’ve got before Armageddon to talk to the Sophons. Negotiate, maybe, or at least learn all about their plans. They’re suppose to be an open information, no-lies society, so why not just find out exactly what they are up to and stop them. Instead we pepper the Oort cloud with big heavily armed ships. Wouldn’t have taken a genius to just ask the Sophons if that had any chance of working.

Why four wallfacers and not four hundred? Why allow then to go into hibernation and not actually do any wallfacing? Why not replace them when they die off?

You’ll have gathered I found this a very frustrating book, full of ‘why the hell did they do that?’ and ‘why don’t they just do the bleedin’ obvious?’ questions. But the biggest problem, without a doubt, is committees. The people in Liu’s book like committees. He writes about them in so much depth that you could often be forgiven for thinking you are reading the minutes of the (many) meetings. And the space fleet has political officers, which made me smile. It was the only time I smiled in this book, though. It meandered through committee to committee filled with bad science and inexplicable decision-making to an unsatisfying and slightly perplexing solution. Recommended only if you believe in the Hugo voting process. Actually, not even then.

Mark Bilsborough

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