June 9th: On Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest
It takes a lot for a novel to earn a title like The Dark Forest, which suggests to me an interchangeable genre work as tropily, deliciously empty as any other. I knew the book wasn’t—I had just finished the trilogy’s first entry, The Three-Body Problem, and trusted Cixin to deliver on its promise. Still, I hesitated. The Dark Forest: it conjured folkloric phantoms, anthropomorphic monsters better suited to stalking the glens of the moons of Endor. It summoned the specter of middle-novel aimlessness, of getting lost in a larger narrative’s woods. What I never imagined was the first satisfying answer to the Fermi paradox I’ve ever encountered, alongside enough exciting near-future speculation to fill ten other books.
After The Three-Body Problem, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Where that novel orbited such themes as a civilization’s and an individual’s need to survive—and the lengths each will go to in order to do it—The Dark Forest concerns itself with this line of thought’s inevitable conclusion. Because it’s not only Trisolaris, the extraterrestrial civilization on its way to Earth, that is trying to survive. It’s Earth, too. It’s every intergalactic civilization. And given the exponential rate of technological development, and given the devastation accomplishable by weapons that harness quantum physics, and given the guaranteed abundance of life in the universe, and given the universe’s sense-defying scale: mutually-assured destruction is the only possible peace. The universe is a dark forest, and the civilizations who call it home are all hunters. They move silently through space, alert for the slightest sign of life, perpetually poised to wipe it out and thereby save themselves.
This is the bleak vision Cixin presents us with—not only of civilizations as a whole, but of the individuals who make them up. And unlike many other works of science fiction, the success of The Dark Forest hinges upon less upon his ability to convince us of the science of his science fiction (an ability Cixin has, and in spades) than of the story’s fictional elements. Because everyone in this version of our universe, it seems, is suspicious of each other, and for good reason. Luo Ji, the closest thing the novel has to a main protagonist, meets the love of his life, only to have her cryogenically-preserved body used against him as a bargaining chip. Seven warships successfully escape the destruction of Earth’s two-thousand-strong space fleet, only to promptly turn on each other, reducing the number of surviving craft to two. One by one, the men the United Nations appoints as the planet’s saviors reveal themselves to be nihilists of the most condemnable sort. Everyone is out for everyone, and the Earth’s survival depends not upon a refutation, but a harnessing, of this fact.
I’ll be able to talk more about how I feel about this pessimistic thesis after finishing Death’s End, the final entry in the Three-Body trilogy. For now, I’ll leave it at this: I’m going to read Death’s End. All the way to the end of its 600-plus pages. Liu Cixin has me locked in to the hardest sci-fi I’ve read in a metaphorical minute. I’m excited (if still a little nervous) to see this story through.