The Dark Forest

cover

In a word

Quality.

The Bad

Self-Indulgence

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Three-Body Problem was the respect for the reader's time: only the essentials were written, nothing was overindulgent. Cixin indulges himself in The Dark Forest a bit, unfortunately:

Imaginary Lover

Reading through how authors conjuring a character for fiction requires understanding the character at their deepest levels was insufferable. That's something I'd expect from amateur, self-absorbed authors. This is all made worse by the fact that it was so unnecessary. Luo Ji needed a wife and child so that he could be coerced into working as a Wallfacer, we didn't need the pretentious authors are so imaginative, they must pour their soul into their art bullshit.

Virus

The virus that tried to kill Luo in the future society didn't contribute to the overarching plot at all. It could have been cut out. Moreover, the segement was weird since Luo constantly has near death experiences, but instead of rushing to safety, he and Shi have ordinary conversations and even eat at a diner. Come on.

Plot convenience

The plot unfolds in a somewhat convenient fashion, ignoring important questions:

  • Why didn't Keiko, the Wallbreaker, just murder Bill? Save herself the trouble of figuring out his plan.
  • It's been established that sophons can imprint text in people's eyes. Why don't the sophons just blind everyone on Earth? Or at least the key personnel? It made sense before TTBP, the Trisolarans didn't want to reveal themselves to the public at large, but the cat's out of the bag now.
  • Did Zhang's plan rely entirely on luck? Consider if Keiko never spilled the beans about the "Imprinted". Also consider if technology had advanced beyond his capability to relearn as a hibernator. Either scenario (and many more) would have stopped his plan dead in its tracks. He essentially stumbled in to possessing a ship.
  • Speaking of Imprinted, how would the Imprinted transcend generations? Imprinted have children and then subject their children to the mental seal, then the children do that to their children? It requires a lot on the reader's part to suspend disbelief in that regard.

Zhang and the Imprinted

For Zhang's story, the whole point was to get Zhang into the Captain's chair, which could have been written in a much less convoluted way. It's noted that hibernators have better reactability than kids. That by itself would be a sufficient reason to make Zhang a captain. Combine that with his niavete about modern society, which makes his mental disposition simpler: less political, more focused. There's no need for any of the "Imprinted" jazz.

Zhang mentions a group called the "Future Historians" which successfully predicted the future. This a frustratingly deus ex machina justification for Zhang's defection. What makes the "Future Historians" so clairvoyant? However! I will fully retract this negative point and do a full 180, making it a positive, if Cixin is subtly but specifically referring to the Historians group of Blindsight by Peter Watts. This is the defining excerpt from Blindsight:

Excerpt: Technology Implies Belligerence If the unknown was hostile, we were probably doomed no matter what we did. The Unknown was technologically advanced—and there were some who claimed that that made them hostile by definition. Technology Implies Belligerence, they said.

I suppose I should explain that, now that it's completely irrelevant. You've probably forgotten after all this time.

Once there were three tribes. The Optimists, whose patron saints were Drake and Sagan, believed in a universe crawling with gentle intelligence—spiritual brethren vaster and more enlightened than we, a great galactic siblinghood into whose ranks we would someday ascend. Surely, said the Optimists, space travel implies enlightenment, for it requires the control of great destructive energies. Any race which can't rise above its own brutal instincts will wipe itself out long before it learns to bridge the interstellar gulf.

Across from the Optimists sat the Pessimists, who genuflected before graven images of Saint Fermi and a host of lesser lightweights. The Pessimists envisioned a lonely universe full of dead rocks and prokaryotic slime. The odds are just too low, they insisted. Too many rogues, too much radiation, too much eccentricity in too many orbits. It is a surpassing miracle that even one Earth exists; to hope for many is to abandon reason and embrace religious mania. After all, the universe is fourteen billion years old: if the galaxy were alive with intelligence, wouldn't it be here by now?

Equidistant to the other two tribes sat the Historians. They didn't have too many thoughts on the probable prevalence of intelligent, spacefaring extraterrestrials— but if there are any, they said, they're not just going to be smart. They're going to be mean.

It might seem almost too obvious a conclusion. What is Human history, if not an ongoing succession of greater technologies grinding lesser ones beneath their boots? But the subject wasn't merely Human history, or the unfair advantage that tools gave to any given side; the oppressed snatch up advanced weaponry as readily as the oppressor, given half a chance. No, the real issue was how those tools got there in the first place. The real issue was what tools are for.

To the Historians, tools existed for only one reason: to force the universe into unnatural shapes. They treated nature as an enemy, they were by definition a rebellion against the way things were. Technology is a stunted thing in benign environments, it never thrived in any culture gripped by belief in natural harmony. Why invent fusion reactors if your climate is comfortable, if your food is abundant? Why build fortresses if you have no enemies? Why force change upon a world which poses no threat?

Human civilization had a lot of branches, not so long ago. Even into the twenty-first century, a few isolated tribes had barely developed stone tools. Some settled down with agriculture. Others weren't content until they had ended nature itself, still others until they'd built cities in space.

We all rested eventually, though. Each new technology trampled lesser ones, climbed to some complacent asymptote, and stopped—until my own mother packed herself away like a larva in honeycomb, softened by machinery, robbed of incentive by her own contentment.

But history never said that everyone had to stop where we did. It only suggested that those who had stopped no longer struggled for existence. There could be other, more hellish worlds where the best Human technology would crumble, where the environment was still the enemy, where the only survivors were those who fought back with sharper tools and stronger empires. The threats contained in those environments would not be simple ones. Harsh weather and natural disasters either kill you or they don't, and once conquered—or adapted to— they lose their relevance. No, the only environmental factors that continued to matter were those that fought back, that countered new strategies with newer ones, that forced their enemies to scale ever-greater heights just to stay alive. Ultimately, the only enemy that mattered was an intelligent one.

And if the best toys do end up in the hands of those who've never forgotten that life itself is an act of war against intelligent opponents, what does that say about a race whose machines travel between the stars?

I doubt Cixin is referring to this passage, though, since Blindsight was published only two years before The Dark Forest.

The Good

Novel

All of the concepts introduced are persistently interesting because they are unique, novel, and cutting edge. No other sci-fi manages to perplex and stir the imagination as effectively as Cixin does, while still remaining relatable.

Holistic view of humanity

The novel's dire straights are enhanced and relatable by the current Covid-19 pandemic. Future confidence (and its opposite, future dread) are concepts related to both the Trisolaran invasion and Covid-19.

But more importantly, pulling the reader's perspective out from their position rooted on Earth, and persistently placing it somewhere in the distant galaxy, truly broadens the scope of the mind. Carl Sagan style. Except that Carl Sagan's rose-colored worldview is tempered against the constant threat of interstellar violence.

The Dark Forest metaphor

The Dark Forest as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox is outstanding. A truly visionary- and terrifying- idea.

I'm surprised that there was no mention of the Trisolaran fleet cannibalizing itself in the same way the (unwitting) interstellar human fleet had. It is based on axioms, after all.

The Final Scene

Reminiscent of The Truman Show, looking at the sky and telling God to go fuck himself, I win. That was satisfying.


I've written much more about The Bad, but that is just because the bad parts need explaining and the good parts don't. The Dark Forest is well worth the effort.