The Dark Forest
by Cixin Liu
Translated by Joel Martinsen;
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765377081
Date: 11 August 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Dark Forest is a sequel to the 2015 Hugo Award best novel winner, The Three-Body Problem. This series was a best seller in China and has been translated into English by Ken Liu (first and third volumes) and Joel Martinsen (this volume). Historically, American science fiction fans have not paid much attention to works published in other languages (with a few exceptions like Stanisław Lem). This has changed recently as the field has grown more accepting of diverse cultures.
The Dark Forest may be a better book than the first one. It has all of the sense of wonder large scale idea-driven science fiction that drove The Three-Body Problem. But it also has an interesting character in Luo Ji, a lazy hedonist who just might be right person to save Earth from the aliens.
The setting is the near future. Mankind knows that an invasion fleet from the Trisolarans is on the way and will be reaching Earth in 400 years. The aliens use a subatomic particle to spy on humanity while simultaneously blocking any future scientific advance. Since the aliens can learn anything said or written down, the leaders of Earth choose four people to be Wallfacers, given (at least in theory) nearly unlimited political power to develop their own plans to confront the enemy without having to defend or even share their plans with anyone.
Meanwhile Mike Evans, a leader in the traitorous Earth-Trisolaris Organization discovers that the aliens have little understanding of lies and deceit since their brains display their thoughts so that "to say" and "to think" are synonyms (something that probably should have been brought up in the first book).
When Luo Ji, Earth's first cosmic sociologist, is chosen as a Wallfacer, his immediate reaction is to refuse. Naturally, everyone assumes this is part of his secret plan. Taking advantage of his status, he demands a secluded estate, expensive bottles of wine, and a romantic partner resembling his dream girl. But gradually the reader learns that the Trisolarans are afraid of Luo Ji and have ordered their supporters to kill him. Shi Qiang, the police detective from the first book, also has a major role here as Luo Ji's bodyguard and confidant.
The other Wallfacers seem to pursue plans involving increasing human intelligence, using nuclear bombs, and a new space fleet. In response the Trisolarans' human partners name their own Wallbreakers who will uncover and make public the true plans of the Wallfacers. Much of the book's plot comes from this conflict and the making and exposing these plans.
In addition to Luo Ji, the other major character is Zhang Beihai, a political commissar in the Space Force. Early in the book he warns of defeatism and forces the resignation of the Space Force's head (no American novel would give a loyalty/morale officer this much power). He plays a major role in the expansion of the Space Fleet and then in future (after hibernating himself) becomes an acting captain (relying orders from the actual captain) when military fears its troops have been secretly imprinted with Defeatism.
Both main characters hibernate, waking up 200 years later in a more advanced society with an inexhaustible supply of energy. Most people live underground, with an artificial sun. Instead of countries, there are three independent space fleets. But computer technology has not advanced much Cixin Liu's descriptions do not seem like those of a civilization as far from ours, as we are from 1815 (despite the flying cars). This is in part explained by the Great Ravine, when civilization almost collapsed due to fears about the invasion.
Usually, the middle book in the trilogy takes one of two paths. Either it tries to delay the final confrontation, introducing new subplots or focusing on building up the hero to be prepared for the climatic battle, or it shows the hero near defeat and the failure of all the plans made in the first book. The Dark Forest seems to take the second route, with perhaps the most unevenly matched space battle in science fiction, only to present a surprising twist near the end. In fact, the reader may well wonder what is left for the third book. Fortunately, the third book, Death's End, translated by Ken Liu (the translator of the first book) will come out in April 2016.
Considering how much attention this series has received in China and the fact that The Three-Body Problem won the best novel Hugo last year, I expect The Dark Forest will appear on the Hugo ballots again this year.