The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I’m not finished this book yet but there are so many small details in it that I could write essays about so I wanted to start that I guess. Let me look at how this book deals with an alien invasion, a hypothetical invasion at that, and its effect on the entire society of Earth.

In The Three Body Problem, humanity is made aware of an extraterrestrial presence — and made aware that that presence is on its way to Earth. The Trisolarans need a new home, and it’s obvious enough that they are headed toward us with violent intentions – whether the violence is inherent (because their plan is to destroy us to make room for themselves) or happens as a result of our unwillingness to coexist.

The very idea of extraterrestrial war tears humanity apart. The characters in the novel have no idea what they’re up against. They can’t know, because they’ve never had to conceptualize, let alone fight such an enemy. What they have to work with is their military knowledge, a great deal of speculation, and a whole lot of fear.

In the first novel we were introduced to the Wallfacers. These individuals came about as a U.N. plan in reaction to some of the potentially dangerous traits of the Trisolarans – they have long-range communications and incredibly advanced observation technology. They have also only recently been introduced to the concept of subterfuge, so they are hyperaware of humanity’s capacity for it. These combined factors mean that any counterattack plan that is collectively decided on by humanity will be quickly discovered and neutralized.

Enter the Wallfacers. Four individuals chosen by committee, then provided with unlimited funds and access to every conceivable military, political, and scientific installation on Earth, in order to each formulate an offensive or defensive plan that only they know the details of.

It’s a terrifying concept – to give a single individual basically infinite power, and encourage them to be evasive and dishonest about their intentions in every aspect of their dealings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plan fails quite spectacularly, leading to a great deal of lost time, money and embarrassment on the part of the U.N.

But the failure of the Wallfacer Project is not necessarily the author’s point, here. It’s easy to read this as a warning, Liu’s assertion that absolute power corrupts absolutely – that efficiency and effectiveness at this scale, for an individual, requires a pureness of mind and intent that no human actually possesses. That humanity is doomed because we cannot trust ourselves.

Or perhaps Liu’s point here is that leaning into these traits that we’re all aware of is what truly dooms us. The Trisolaran threat in the novel causes a reaction from humans that is to rely more heavily on dishonesty, cover-ups, and misinformation. Maybe a different approach is in order.

In The Dark Forest, our main characters wake up in the 22nd century, after having been cryogenically frozen for several decades. While the current world seems like paradise of medical and technological advancements, we learn slowly and subtly that this world came at a heavy cost.

The Great Ravine is not seen directly, but recounted through background information, and memories of characters who were not frozen. There’s no direct exposition, we never see it firsthand. Yet somehow in this fashion it becomes more real to the current reader. Most of us never lived through the atrocities of the 20th century, let alone earlier. This is Liu’s way of telling us: this was worse than anything so far.

So that’s it, then. An alien invasion is the worst disaster humanity’s ever seen – political strife, violence, famine, an overuse of resources leading to a barren landscape and further starvation and death – and the aliens are still 200 years away.

This poses an interesting question for when the aliens finally do show up. Will it be worse? Can it get worse? Or has the worst already passed? In the face of great upheaval, are we our own worst enemies? Or is Liu, in his series, subtly hinting at the utopian ideals that are staring his humanity in the face, from between the lines?

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