The best thing to come out of an otherwise rather painful and awful Hugo awards season last year was that they settled on the right winner: The Three-Body Problem. The blend of hard sci-fi, big-questions, intense plot, and amazing writing are exactly what I look for in a Hugo winner for best novel. There was no question that I was looking forward to sequel.
Of course, if I spoke Chinese, I could have read it a long time ago. The entire trilogy—Remembrance of Earth’s Past—came out in 2007 (The Three-Body Problem), 2008 (The Dark Forest), and 2010 (Death’s End). What’s most exciting for me is that—according to an article by Cixin Liu at Tor.com, “it was [the] third volume, written only for science fiction fans, which led to the popularity of the series as a whole.”1To say that I’m excited to read Death’s End (English translation due out this year) would be an epic understatement.
Yes, yes, but how was The Dark Forest?
I enjoyed it immensely as I read it, but it was only at the end that I really appreciated what I’d read. On its face, The Dark Forest fits in the alien invasion genre. After the events of The Three-Body Problem, Earth knows two things. First, there’s an alien invasion fleet headed towards them. Since this is a hard sci-fi setting there’s no faster-than-light travel, and this means that humans have about 400 years to prepare. However, and here’s the second thing that Earth knows, the aliens sent ahead some devices that put a cap on humanity’s scientific development.2
The Dark Forest is primarily about that 400-year preparation, and it is chock full of absolutely amazing innovations. Because of the devices they already have on Earth, the aliens have basically complete surveillance capacity over the planet Earth. Anything said, written down, or transmitted electronically can be recorded and sent back to the approaching fleet instantaneously.3 And so humanity starts the Wall Facer Project, which empowers 4 strategic geniuses with basically unlimited power and no oversight to concoct their own schemes for defense and then enact them without telling anyone their real intentions. Meanwhile, the human collaborators set apart 3 Wall Breakers to stop the Wall Facers.4 The fourth Wall Breaker is the alien commander himself.
This sets up a really, really tall order for Cixin Liu. Can he come up with not one, but four sufficiently sneaky strategies to defeat a technologically superior alien force? That’s tough, because the kind of silly (fun! but silly) antics that you get in a movie like Independence Day (and basically every other alien invasion movie ever) are not going to fly here. Liu’s put too much emphasis on realistic physics and just plain realism in general for that kind of an ending to work. The Death Star isn’t going to have an open conduit to its central power unit, the Martians aren’t going to all get the flu and die, and we don’t get to hack into the alien mothership with a MacBook. Those stories are fine, but this isn’t one of those stories.
Then, what’s more, Liu has to also deal with the question of whether or not the Wall Breakers can figure out what those plans are and, if they do, give a convincing explanation for how they figured it out in a way that is satisfying to readers.
This is a tall order! And, without any spoilers, Liu pulls it off. There’s misdirection, there’s genius, there’s treachery and loyalty, and through it all he delivers on the lofty expectations he has set for himself.
For that alone, The Dark Forest would rank as a really epic work of science fiction. But there’s more.
So far the challenges—and therefore the successes—of The Dark Forest have been largely technical. In addition to the question of the Wall Facers / Wall Breakers, Liu has to also do a lot of really great world-building to create a realistic (technically and psychologically) future path for humanity over the next few centuries, and he does that, too. And through it all I was impressed, not just at the ability to come up with a great plot, but also at the quality of the prose. A couple of lines of dialogue / prose that stuck with me so much that I put them in Evernote include:
The ant climbed out of the basin and up onto the formation’s peak. It felt no sense of towering above its surroundings because it had no fear of falling. It had been blown off of places higher than this many times without any injury. Without the fear of heights, there can be no appreciation for the beauty of high places.
There are no permanent enemies or comrades. Only permanent duty.
But—although the book was excellent in terms of plot, dialogue, and prose—I still felt that it was lacking that special transcendent something that took it from a technical masterpiece into a real work of art.
I really can’t go into any details without spoilers, but I can simply say that the ending showed me how wrong I was. The conclusion of the book fused uncompromising technical prowess with heart. I was shocked and, I’m not ashamed to say, tears may have been shed as I realized that all of the technical preoccupation of the last couple hundred pages on “the Dark Forest” (a thought experiment / analogy relating to the Fermi Paradox from which the novel derives its title) had been in the service of addressing some pretty fundamental human questions. And that, my friends, is what sci-fi is all about.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Dark Forest has an excellent shot at taking the Hugo again this year, and deservedly so. And did I mention I’m on pins and needles waiting for Death’s End to come out? I think I mentioned that already, right?