A review in which we are…conflicted.
Title: The Dark Forest
Author: Cixin Liu
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: August 11 2015
Hardcover: 512 Pages
This is the second novel in the “Three Body” near-future trilogy. Written by the China’s multiple-award-winning science fiction author, Cixin Liu.
In Dark Forest, Earth is reeling from the revelation of a coming alien invasion—four centuries in the future. The aliens’ human collaborators have been defeated, but the presence of the sophons, the subatomic particles that allow Trisolaris instant access to all human information, means that Earth’s defense plans are exposed to the enemy. Only the human mind remains a secret.
This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a daring plan that grants four men enormous resources to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from Earth and Trisolaris alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown. Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer and sociologist, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he’s the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Three Body series
How did we get this book: ARC from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print/EARC
I can’t think of a book that has squandered more of my goodwill than The Dark Forest in recent memory. Actually no, scrap that. I can’t think of a book that has CRUSHED me more than The Dark Forest did. Beware, spoilers and CAPS LOCK OF FURY AHEAD.
I loved The Three-Body Problem. I loved it so much, I handed it over to Thea, telling her: READ THIS NOW. We BOTH loved it so much, we gave it high ratings and the book eventually made our top 10 lists of 2014. I loved it so much, when it won a Hugo Award this year, I screamed. Needless to say, we were both super excited about reading The Dark Forest. Until it punched it me in the face. Multiple times.
Just like its predecessor, parts of The Dark Forest are bloody fantastic. In the previous book, humanity found out that 1) we are not alone in the universe and 2) the aliens? They are coming. More than that, they are coming for us. The doomed Tri-solarians have set forth on their long journey to Earth and humans have 400 years to get ready. How to do that? How to prepare for the inevitable moment when we face those who come to destroy us?
First, survival is the primary need of civilization. Second, civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
Here is the (awesome) catch: the Tri-solarians have sent ahead particles called sophons that have the dual mission to spy on humans and to curtail technological and scientific advance – the very thing that could potentially save us all. What makes this absolutely thrilling is that although humans are aware that the sophons are here, we don’t know at which point this block will start to work so the only thing we can do is to carry on, trying to advance as much as possible without knowing where or when or how the block will be enforced.
Also thrilling – and fascinating – is the great socio-political, philosophical insights into predicting how humans would react to all of this. There are many different answers to that: some wish to welcome our new overlords. Others wish for the destruction of the human race. Others want to invest in plans to escape Earth completely. Others want to stay and fight. All of those threads are examined and elaborated on and the result is thought-provoking.
There is a tapestry of stories here but the one storyline that drives the plot forward more than any other is perhaps the one concerning the Wallfacer Project: four people are specially chosen and given ample power, unlimited funds and resources to come up with a plan to defend the planet. They must do that on their own – never letting anybody know of their plans so that the sophons cannot decipher it. Because of that, no one is allowed to question any of their orders, or deny any of their requests – as ludicrous as they might be. As a counterpoint, the Tri-solarians (or rather, their friends on Earth) come up with the Wallbreakers – four chosen individuals who will try to break their allocated Wallfacer.
One of those Wallfacers is Luo Ji, a Chinese astronomer and sociologist and the closest thing that The Dark Forest has to a protagonist. Luo Ji has no idea why he was chosen as a Wallfacer, has no real plan, basically winging it throughout the novel – and yet for some mysterious reason, the Tri-solarians are determined to kill him at all costs.
Like I said, the premise of the book is exhilarating – and it’s incredibly well developed too, in spite of the clumsy dialogue and occasional info-dump.
Unfortunately, the book has one significant problem that I simply can’t overlook.
Its treatment of women throughout is appalling. Enraging. It is so bad, it almost transcends “bad” into comical.
There are no main female characters of any significance apart from perhaps, two or three: they are the Secretary General of the UN (described as a “refined Asian lady who didn’t project the sense of power needed”); a prominent scientist and Wallbreaker; and a general. In a cast of literal dozens, this is PITIFUL. Especially because their spotlight is short-lived.
In fact, the world in this novel seems to be mostly populated by men, it’s a veritable sausage-fest. Most characters in the spotlight are men. All the Wallfacers are men. Throughout the novel, other women appear but they go unnamed, have no stories. It’s as ridiculous as having one particular storyline that follows a group of male friends and all of whom have names and stories. One of those guys has a lover and she appears in the background of their interactions all the time, has dinner with them, is there in a lot of scenes but is referred throughout as “the Sichuan woman”.
Similarly, basically the first time we meet the book’s main character, he is in bed with a woman whose name he can’t remember:
Luo Ji lay limp on the bed, watching the woman put on clothes after a shower through eyes still hazy from sleep. The sun, already high in the sky, shone through the curtains and turned her into a graceful projected silhouette, like a scene from a black-and-white movie he had forgotten the name of. But what he needed to remember now was her name. What was she called?
Soon after that, they are walking outside, and she gets KILLED. He THEN remembers her name:
He didn’t hear the heavy thud of the other impact, but then he saw the woman’s body soar over the top of the car and fall behind it on the road like a boneless rag doll. As it tumbled, the trail of blood it left behind on the ground seemed like it ought to mean something. As he stared at the bloody symbol, Luo Ji finally remembered her name.
Do you think the narrative bothers to finally NAME her? No. Of course not. Why would it? Women are unimportant.
Luo Ji is a man-child who says he has never been able to truly connect with a woman because when he was at university he made up a female character for an unwritten novel and fell in love with this imaginary person because she was the perfect woman. This is a part of the story that goes and on and on on how he created this imaginary woman. When he becomes a Wallfacer and is given unlimited resources to save the planet, he sets out to find this perfect woman, by asking his bodyguard to find her:
“She… how should I put it? She came into this world like a lily growing out of a rubbish heap, so… so pure and delicate, and nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! Your first reaction when you see her is to protect her. No, to care for her, to let her know that you are willing to pay any price to shield her from the harm of a crude and savage reality. She… she’s so… ah, I’ve got a clumsy tongue. I can’t say anything clearly.”
He described how she had come alive for the first time in the library, how she appeared in his classroom during lecture, how the two of them had met in front of the imaginary fireplace in his dormitory, the beauty of the firelight shining onto her face through the bottle of wine like the eyes of twilight. He recalled with pleasure their road trip, describing every last detail: the fields after the snow, the town and village under the blue sky, the mountains like old villagers basking in the sun, and the evening and bonfire at the foot of the mountain…. After he finished, Shi Qiang stubbed out his cigar.
“Well, that’s about enough. I’ll guess a few things about the girl, and you see if I’m right.”
“Education: She’s got at least a bachelor’s, but less than a doctorate.”
Luo Ji nodded. “Yes, yes. She’s knowledgeable, but not to the point where it calcifies her. It only makes her more sensitive to life and to the world.”
In a gross, completely unbelievable turn of events, they find this woman and Luo Ji marries her. And then the story proceeds to objectify and infantilise the character:
Looking at her innocently holding the wineglass stirred the most delicate parts of his mind. She drank when invited. She trusted the world and had no wariness about it at all. Yes, everything in the world was lying in wait to hurt her, except here. She needed to be cared for here.
When she saw its true appearance for the first time, what Luo Ji heard was not the squeals and fussing and exclamations that young women like her usually made. No, in the face of such a magnificent vista, she fell into an awed and breathless state and was unable to speak even one word of praise. He could tell that she was far more sensitive to natural beauty than other women.
He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.
Her English was strained, but her voice retained a childlike softness and she still had that cool spring of a smile, which stroked his weary soul like an angel’s hands.
You might have been wondering… this is a book about alien invasion and high stakes, wtf is all this doing here. Well, dear reader: the zenith of this storyline is that Luo Ji is not doing his work properly and so THEY TAKE AWAY HIS WIFE AND FREEZE HER UNTIL SUCH A TIME WHEN HE DOES HIS WORK AND SHE CAN BE RETURNED TO HIM.
Yes, you heard that right. This book LITERALLY fridges the woman to LITERALLY motivate the main character.
Now, in fairness, there is an argument to be made that the story is taking Luo Ji’s misogynist views of women and using it against him. Especially when we find out that Zhuang Yan chose to sacrifice herself for humankind. I will counter-argue that we never get to hear from Zhuang Yan – her perspective and her choice are invisible to us, info-dumped from afar. This is particularly egregious in a book with multiple viewpoints and a lot of head-hoping.
Ultimately, I deeply resent the fact THAT I HAD TO SPEND SO MUCH FUCKING TIME INSIDE THIS ASSHOLE’S HEAD. And more than being an actual, developed plot point, I’d say that there is no narrative pay-off for this misogyny. It’s there, normalised as a character trait and it goes nowhere. There is no point to it and it goes unchallenged. Was this a problem that existed in The Three-Body Problem and I glossed over it because one of the main characters in that book was a woman? It’s possible. I also wonder, perhaps uncharitably and unfairly, how much the change in translator from book 1 to book 2 has made an impact in the way the English narrative conveys all of this.
At the end of the day, even though the main narrative thrust of the novel was incredible, I care far too much about about the book’s treatment of women to come close to liking The Dark Forest. In fact, I wish the Tri-solarians to come and obliterate this book from orbit.
Ok. This is a tough one to write.
It’s tough because I completely, wholeheartedly understand and agree with Ana. The treatment of female characters in this particular novel is appalling. It’s pointless misogyny, serving no actual purpose in the development of the overall story, it’s accepted and adopted by multiple characters (all men, of course, because there are no main female characters in this novel), and it actually is the literary equivalent of being punched in the face. Multiple times.
For the entire first act of this book, we are subjected to the vile thoughts (and I say vile, because of the casual banality of this character’s attitude towards women) in Luo Ji’s head. These thoughts go unchallenged by the text; moreover, these sentiments are echoed by others in the novel (in particular, Da Shi, who plays a big part in Three Body Problem). What’s worse is, all of this narrative shittiness is utterly throwaway–in the first 200 pages of the book, nothing of real import or interest happens!
It’s very, very hard to recommend a book–or continue reading a book–where nearly a third of the text is superfluous douchecanoery without forward momentum in terms of overall storyline.
Once you get past the first part of the book and enter part 2, with the Wallfacer Project taking off in earnest, the Wallbreakers, and the looming reality of Trisolaran invasion and Earth’s preparations for the Doomsday Battle…once you get there, The Dark Forest delivers. BIG TIME. There are twists and shocking surprises and metaphors–and they are brilliant, if darkly shrouded in pessimism in the innate nature of intelligent life in the universe.
And that’s where the conflicted part of my brain kicks in, because for as much as I hated the first 200 pages or so, I absolutely loved the brilliant, unexpected, and thoroughly awesome 300 pages that followed. The Dark Forest examines the 400 years that humanity has to prepare for the Trisolaran invasion of Earth, and face a huge disadvantage. To the advanced Trisolarian civilization, humanity are mere bugs–what’s worse, Trisolaris has sent sophons to Earth that are capable of preventing huge leaps in technological progress, listen/read/perceive of all human conversations and communication. What this means, effectively, is humanity can form no plans to fight the invasion without the sophons finding out and transmitting that information back to Trisolaris. In response to this formidable and seemingly unbeatable enemy edge, the human Planetary Defense Council creates the Wallfacer Project, in which four men–Frederick Tyler, Rey Diaz, Bill Hines, and Luo Ji–are selected to formulate plans that will save humanity. The kicker? These men can never reveal their strategies. They can never speak of or write their plans. They are granted unlimited power and privilege, given access to any resources they require to execute their defense and defeat of Trisolaris–and the sophons, for all their ability to eavesdrop and process information, cannot read minds. Nor can they understand the intricacies of human thought or deception.
The plans that each of these men create–and the opposition they face from their respective “Wallbreakers”, human Trisolaran-sympathizers given the task of discerning the plans of the Wallfacers–are varied, completely unexpected, and utterly exhilarating to read. The one wildcard in the project is Luo Ji–who doesn’t want to be a Wallfacer, who squanders resources and time initially, but who is the key to humanity’s survival and victory. He’s also a pathetic human being and character–but that’s kind of besides (or maybe it is) the point.
I don’t want to spoil how things unfold (ha) in The Dark Forest, or the revelations that the Wallfacers and Luo Ji in particular make. Suffice it to say, there’s a haunting elegance to the metaphor of the eponymous “Dark Forest” and that Cixin’s ultimate design by novel’s end are almost wholly breathtaking.
For as much as I appreciate the metaphor of the title, the unexpected message of love and hope, and the unexpected and bizarre way things shake out in this novel, it is hard to recommend The Dark Forest. It’s hard to tell someone that they might be punched in the face for about 200 pages, but stick with it because the payoff is good. I completely understand and respect Ana’s opinion and position when it comes to this second novel.
For me… I want to know what happens next. No, I need to know what happens next. I abhor the misogyny of the book’s first half–but I will be back to read Death’s End in 2016.
Ana: 1 – NOPE
Thea: A 2 for the awful first 1/3, an 8 for the brilliant subsequent 2/3. So let’s call it a 6.
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