The Dark Forest

You may recall that I waited a long time to read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem. Indeed, though the novel had garnered lots of rave reviews, the fact that it was a translation sort of put me off. And as is habitually the case when I wait this long before reading something, I felt like an idiot for not reading the book when it first came out. The opening chapter of the Remembrance of Earth's Past series may not have been perfect, but it was a superior read.

I was curious to see where the author would take the story now that mankind was aware of the alien invasion. And I'm happy to report that The Dark Forest is as good as its predecessor!

Here's the blurb:

This near-future trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from Cixin Liu, China's most beloved science fiction author.

In The Dark Forest, Earth is reeling from the revelation of a coming alien invasion-in just four centuries' time. The aliens' human collaborators may 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 totally 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.

Cixin Liu is the most popular science fiction author in China, but most wondered if the English translation could do justice to this series. Ken Liu's translation of The Three-Body Problem worked well for the most part. The same can be said of Joel Martinsen's translation of The Dark Forest. Sure, there are a few clunky portions here and there, and once again I have a feeling that some things got lost along the way because they could not be translated properly. The same goes for the dialogue, which did not always ring true. I'm glad that like Liu, Martinsen elected to go for footnotes to provide additional information, as there are already too many massive info-dumps throughout the novel. Ultimately, I have a feeling that the English translation is as good as it could be and that certain elements simply couldn't be translated perfectly. As a matter of course, some readers might find that off-putting. And yet, The Dark Forest is another work of big ideas and one soon forgets about these little things.

The vast majority of the science fiction I've read over the years was produced by American and British authors. To get the Chinese point of view regarding world events and witness how the country would react to first contact with an alien civilization was fascinating. Non-Western views were indeed quite refreshing. Given the fact that it's now the entire world reacting to the forthcoming Trisolaris invasion, we do get Western perspectives within the pages of The Dark Forest. And yet, the Chinese viewpoint more or less remains the focus of the tale. Once again, there are a lot of hard scifi concepts involved in the plot and the author did a great job "dumbing" down most of them so that virtually any genre readers can enjoy the story.

The events of this book unfold over the course of two centuries. An overwhelming sense of despair permeates everything as the inevitable defeat against a superior civilization seems assured. The Wallfacers and their strategies turned out to be a decidedly unusual and quite interesting plot device. Moving forward two hundred years into the future also changed the tempo of the novel and key players coming out of hibernation have to adapt to a vastly different world. The Great Ravine changed several aspects of life on Earth decades before. Still, something appears to have been lost along the way and it's those people who went to sleep in the early years following the discovery of the Trisolaran fleet who will play the most important role in the struggle to come.

As was the case with the first installment, the characterization can be a bit uneven. The protagonists are not necessarily deeply realized. Most act as stand-in figures representing the concepts and ideas introduced and elaborated on throughout The Dark Forest. The eccentric Luo Ji is the one who stands out the most, but it's mostly due to his importance in the resolution of the plot and not because he's memorable in any way.

Not surprisingly, like its predecessor this second volume also suffers from pacing problems. Having said that, it was never really an issue for me. The more you begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the more fascinating the novel becomes. Eager to discover how Cixin Liu will close the show in the final installment, Death's End.

The final verdict: 8.5/10

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