Monday, May 20, 2024

Cosmic Hope or Lack Thereof: The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (Translated by Joel Martinson)


I read (and loved!) Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem back in 2016. I vowed to read the sequels soon... and then I ... didn't. I'm honestly not sure why (maybe: aliens?), but I watched and mostly liked the Netflix adaptation of The Three-Body Problem, which reminded me that I really should pick up the sequel (there are actually a few things from the second book in the series as well, so that was fun).

I'm glad I finally read The Dark Forest! This feels like a different kind of book to me (maybe due to being a second book in a series, or leisurely in a more focused way, or maybe I'm a different reader now?). Still, I enjoyed it almost as much as the first one.

The Dark Forest picks up not long after the events of book one. The aliens (Trisolaris) are coming! And humanity is freaking out! The good news: we have 400 years before they arrive (thanks, huge interstellar distances!). The plot is complex and spans a long time. And readers who complained about the lack of emotional connections to characters in the first one will likely continue to complain, but that's kind of what you get when you're reading hard(-ish) SF. Besides, I really liked Da Shi, who is probably everybody's favorite, and the three old men who are neighbors, and even Luo Ji, problematic and annoying as he can be, is an interesting character. 

I liked the novel overall, but it is odd there are so few women characters (probably less than the first one, and one of them is, groan, literally a male character's dream woman). It's odd that China, North America, and Europe get almost all the attention in a novel about humanity as a whole. And at times the pace drags a little, but not as much as it did in the first one. I think I came to appreciate and understand Liu's more leisurely story telling style more in this one (or maybe I'm a more leisurely reader now?).

Rather than going through the plot point-by-point, maybe I'll talk about some of the cool ideas (because this continues to be Big Ideas SF and that's what it's all about, for better or for worse).

  • The Wallfacers: I love this idea! In non-spoilery terms: since the aliens can spy on the humans, the UN appoints a few individuals to make plans to face the invaders in four centuries. The Wallfacers are to be obeyed and given extensive resources, but they will make most of their plans in secret. As a storytelling device, this is just fun, because you never know what the Wallfacers will do next. And will there be any opposition to the Wallfacers...? You'll have to read to find out.
  • The concept of cosmic sociology: This idea bookends the novel and gets fleshed out a bit later on. Without too many spoilers, the idea is to think about axioms or basic principles of a sociology of interstellar civilizations: How would they react to each other? How many could there be at one time? The title of the novel ("The Dark Forest") is an analogy in cosmic sociology: civilizations are like people walking in a dark forest, and... You'll have to read to find out what that means.
  • I also continue to find some philosophical elements. Mozi from the video game makes an appearance or two, I'm continually reminded of Huayan Buddhism and the concept of interdependence, and there's maybe even a bit of Daoism in the concept of the Wallfacers and being spontaneous as opposed to deliberate and clear calculation (the concept of nonfiction or wu wei, which is despite appearances an effective strategy or mode of being in itself).
One of the other major themes is the role of hope and expectations. As a space wizard (Qui Gon Jinn) once said, "Your focus determines your reality." This sounds like fluffy self-help nonsense, but if you really think about it: what would happen to you and to humanity if we were facing likely extermination in several generations (a thought experiment that's even more pertinent given the possibilities of climate change in the coming decades)? Can too much hope make you sloppy or unable to meet real challenges? Can too little hope make you anemic and defeatist? What is a prudent hope in the face of real threats, armed with human spontaneity and ingenuity? 

I've been thinking a lot lately in a Buddhist context about the role of our expectations and how that shapes how we respond to change and challenges. One of the deepest lessons of Buddhism is that most of our assumptions and expectations are hopelessly wrong, or at least they lead to suffering, so the point of Buddhism is to change (if not eliminate) your expectations, which is of course easier said than done. And the novel gives me a lot to think about through this Buddhist lens.

Another deep point of The Dark Forest is only fully explored at the end, but it continues questions I had been asking all along: Is the cosmic situation so dire that civilizations are doomed to constant conflict? Or is there hope for us? Can we all, either here on Earth or in the cosmos, learn to get along? Cheesy though it may sound, are love and compassion the answer? Or must we remain hard-nosed cynics for the sake of survival?

I'm not sure at the end of the day what Liu's answers are, but that's okay. He's a novelist, not policy advisor, a politician, a saint, or a salesman. One of the reasons I'm interested in fiction philosophically is that I think philosophy and fiction, especially science fiction, are at their best when they ask questions that expand--and maybe even transform--the minds and lives of their readers. 

I can't say this series has changed me as much as some of my other favorite SF and philosophy, but on the other hand, I can't say that it hasn't. Maybe I'll need to read book three to find out, and hopefully it won't take me another eight years to do so!

See also my Goodreads review.

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