“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... The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other lifeanother hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigodthere’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them... This is the picture of cosmic civilization.”
Fermi’s Paradox posits that with the universe being infinitely large it is inevitable that there are advanced civilizations out there capable of interstellar travel and contact. Yet despite our efforts we have encountered only silence.
The Dark Forest, the sequel to Chinese sci-fi master Liu Cixin’s Hugo-winning Three-Body Problem(Click here for review), answers that paradox any intelligent civilization in space must remain silent or it will be destroyed by another civilization out of self-preservation.
The Three-Body Problem ended with the Trisolarans from Alpha Centauri launching an invasion of Earth. It would take their fleet 400 years to reach our solar system, so to prevent our gaining technology to challenge them, they infested our world with “sophons” microscopic particles that would a) allow them to spy on all conversations and b) prevent technology from advancing enough to challenge their invasion.
In The Dark Forest, humanity is scrambling to find a way around these limitations while fighting psychological defeatism that is encouraging people to abandon Earth in generation ships.
The answer is the “Wallfacer Project.”
The world governments empower four humans with vast resources to research and propose plans to fight the Trisolarans; however, they must also misdirect and not reveal all of their plans to prevent the Trisolaran sophons from discovering the plans. These wallfacers include military, political and scientific leaders.
And Luo Ji.
A university professor studying Astronomy and Sociology, Ji is more interested in a paycheck than research and is surprised when he is chosen as a Wallfacer. Yet he cannot refuse the job any attempt at quitting is just assumed to be an intentional misdirection. And unlike the other Wallfacers, Ji seems to be the target of assassination attempts from the ETO, a human terrorist organization sympathetic to the Trisolaran invasion.
So Ji takes advantage of the situation, he has the Project provide him with a luxurious home and any comfort he might want, all under the guise of his Wallfacer work. He even has his bodyguard, Shi Qiang, a police inspector from The Three-Body Problem, track down his dream girl so he can settle down and raise a family.
While the Wallfacers are trying to form their plans, however, the ETO has appointed Wallbreakers, people who are tasked with discovering the hidden agendas behind the Wallfacer deceptions. Two of the Wallfacers are quickly discovered, revealing monstrous plans to destroy civilization in an attempt to destroy the Trisolarans as well. One even meets with a thinly-veiled Osama Bin-Laden in an attempt to recruit Al-Qaida soldiers to serve on suicide missions.
Ji ends up going into hibernation for 200 years to protect his plans.
The novel also follows a naval officer, Zhang Beihai, who also entered hibernation, emerging with Ji to lead the Earth’s space navy against a mysterious probe sent by the Trisolarans.
This is not a happy tale, something I’ve noticed about all of the hard sci-fi I’ve read this year. Cixin is wrestling with big ideas about humanity’s place in the universe and the answers he comes up with aren’t particularly optimistic.
But they are absolutely engrossing, and The Dark Forest is likely to show up on awards lists next year.
A word must also be said about the translation. Unlike The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest is not translated by the award-winning author Ken Liu, instead it is tackled by Joel Martinsen. While I didn’t notice a decline in quality, it did have a different flavor. Liu’s work was a bit more poetic and much more steeped in Chinese history, with extensive footnotes explaining issues with Maoist China and the Cultural Revolution. The Dark Forest is more straightforward and has less footnotes, but it also has less historical context and more action. So I’m not sure if this is a result of different translators as much as different textual requirements. Liu will return to translate Death’s End, the final volume of the “Three-Body” trilogy, next April. ~~ Michael Senft