DARK FOREST Review: One of SF’s New Greats – Universe-Spanning in Scope, Intimate in Detail and Impact

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The Dark Forest is the second book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy and follows the Hugo-Award winning The Three-Body Problem. Spoiler-lite review follows.

The first book set up a huge challenge for humanity. This book feels completely different but extends the original premise and builds it into something that is universe-spanning in its scope. I was worried coming into this story because the author is essentially setting up a centuries-long timeline that guarantees it’ll be a whole different experience and set of characters as the story progresses.

It’s hard to justify giving a book a perfect score, and while I have some issues with the pacing, the author literally “drops the mic” multiple times – I had to put the book down and contemplate the implications at each of these points in the book. I would argue that the scale and sheer number of concepts in the book that all come together make this a near-perfect read. Liu elevates the genre, advancing his story into areas that many of his peers can only aspire to.

To completely enjoy the experience and not ruin the premise, avoid reading the description. Take a gamble – it’s a huge payoff. Trust that this is sci-fi of the highest caliber.

So without giving anything away, what makes this volume of science fiction royalty I near-perfect read?

I think scale has one thing to do with it. Scale from the interpersonal level to the civilization level. You have a lot of people fighting for the same thing but, as in real-world fashion, everyone will have their own idea of how to get to the goal. The author pays homage to many sci-fi greats and references several other masterpieces that were obviously direct influences on him. (I love the obelisk reference from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chilling foreshadowing.)

The other big reason this story sticks the landing is because of the sheer originality it demonstrates over and over again. It’s hard not to root for a story that makes science cool and opens up the possibilities of the universe. I’m not a science nerd, but this book convinced me that outer space – in our time, not the future – is amazing. Eat your heart out Mark Watney.

The author brings the world to life with elaborate detail and paints every corner without taking any detours. The implications of every part of the story all come together in an extremely satisfying and surprising conclusion.

I highly recommend this story anyone who lives for great fiction. This story (for me) sits near the top of the heap.

OK, now THIS is the spoiler section. We have to talk about this book. There’s no turning back so look away now if you don’t want the details of the story…

We know the aliens are coming. And we’ve been told there’s no way we can defeat them. This reality rocks civilization in ways that couldn’t be predicted. I love the cop Da Shi because he’s not phased by this. He’ll take on all the aliens. He’s just one of an amazing cast of characters in the first and second book. Everyone else despairs about our impending doom at the hands of the invading Trisolarans in the first book – they send a single message (You are Bugs) and then cut off communication. We simply have to accept that our future progeny have no hope of survival. The Trisolarans’ invasion will reach our planet in 400 years. We can’t prepare for it because the Trisolarans essentially cut off scientific progress by having these subatomic particles (I think) called sophons that mess with our scientific equipment and leave us without the ability to advance our knowledge. On top of that, you have people who actually worship this invasion force, so we’re fighting other humans as well.

The Dark Forest focuses on our one key strategy that just might help us outsmart this technologically superior species. The sophons observe everything that’s happening on the planet and report back in real time so we can’t keep any secrets from the Trisolarans. The only way to strategize is to pick a few individuals, called the wall facers, who will keep a battle strategy only within their minds. Nothing is written down or put on a computer for the sophons to infiltrate.

There’s a lot of danger in handing the fate of humanity over to four people and the book explores everything that can, and does, go wrong. Hibernation allows the wall facers to sleep and emerge 100 years into the future. Da Shi gets a trip to the the future too. They see that we in fact have advanced technologically – flying cars, underground cities, space ships – but these are due to efficiencies in older tech and refined energy applications.

Now there’s a probe entering the solar system ahead of the Trisolaris invasion and our fleets in space think they can take it on. There’s this moment when the world is united in joy and celebration because they think that the probe is an envoy of peace. The slow and horrifying realization that our hubris has doomed us is one of my favorite parts of the book.

The climatic finale involves one of the most devastating space battles I have read in fiction. It’s gut wrenching to see humanity’s space force wiped out in the span of 30 minutes. And then the surviving ships encounter the Battle of Darkness, yet another brilliant part of the book that examines the human psyche and what it can and cannot withstand in deep space.

Zhang Beihai was one of my favorite characters – the military man of Dark Forest – because even before he was transported to the future era, he was committed to being a realist and saving humanity at any cost, even his own soul as we find out. At one point when aerospace technology was at a crossroads in our time, Beihai was at the international space station plotting to kill three leading tycoons who refused to invest in fusion tech for the future space fleet. They just wanted to keep their wallets fat. They were floating in a group waiting for a photo op with Earth in the background when Beihai shot them with meteorite bullets to make it look accidental. He was unwavering in his assessment of what needed to be done to save humanity all the way until the end in the Battle of Darkness. He’s a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions.

The hero of the story is Luo Ji who is an accidental wall facer who didn’t want to bear the responsibility. His “magic spell” broadcast into the universe is a way to map a position of a planet using the positions of surrounding stars. The Trisolarans were afraid of him because he had unconsciously uncovered the secret of sending a broadcast out into the galaxy which would invite superior species to come and annihilate them. The analogy was like being in a dark forest where every Hunter was always watching out for other hunters. I thought it was fun misdirection when the author described the future underground city as a forest, because I thought that was the dark forest of the book. But the dark forest of the solar system is more sinister and Luo Ji blackmails the Trisolarans by using a really clever technological trick in positioning a relay network in space to send out a signal of Earth’s location if the Trisolarans don’t agree to call off the invasion. He’s gambling that the fate of humanity is better left to chance that the assured destruction represented by the invading aliens.

The book ends with this completely new relationship between Trisolaris and Earth and I can’t wait to see the conclusion. The book built up to this tremendous finale with so many technological tricks and strategies and brilliant deceptions within deceptions that the ending was an utter shock. Humanity won this round thanks to the shrewd thinking and unconventional journey made by a select few humans over the course of more than two centuries. And I’m only touching the tip of the iceberg. Liu Cixin is brilliant in the story he is telling. Science has always been at the heart of the series and I can’t wait to see which humans rise to the occasion and defend the home planet in the conclusion to the trilogy. But the title of that book is Death’s End, so there’s no telling – or it tells everything – about what fate awaits us.

5 of 5

– Josh

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