REVIEW: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

Humanity has waged war on insects for thousands of years. Despite our superior intellect and technology, insects still survive and even thrive. At the end of The Three-Body Problem, the aliens from Trisolaris send a simple message to humanity: “You’re bugs.” The gap between the Trisolarans and humans is as large as that between humans and insects. Will humanity face annihilation from this vastly more intelligent species set on colonizing Earth, or will it find a way to survive after being demoted to an insectoid state?

23168817The people of Earth have about 400 years to prepare for the arrival of the Trisolarans, who can only travel at a small fraction of the speed of light. As the second book in Cixin Liu’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Dark Forest tells of how humanity prepares for the arrival of the Trisolarans. The main challenge is that the Trisolarans have bugged Earth with sophons, intelligent subatomic particles that can monitor all human communication and instantaneously relay it to the traveling Trisolarans via quantum entanglement.

The sophons can monitor any communication, but they cannot penetrate the human mind. As such, the United Nations Planetary Defense Council selects four individuals to formulate survival plans entirely in their own minds, without ever communicating their ideas to anyone to avoid interception by the Trisolarans. These so-called “Wallfacers” are given essentially unlimited resources to support their plans, with no questions asked.

The first three Wallfacers are well-respected intellectuals with extensive experience in science and politics. Each of these Wallfacers is assigned a Wallbreaker by the competing Earth-Trisolaris Organization (ETO), a cult whose members worship the Trisolarans as deities. The Wallbreakers seek to expose and sabotage the plans being developed by the Wallfacers.

To everyone’s surprise, the fourth and final Wallfacer is selected to be Luo Ji, the main character of the book. Luo is an astronomer and sociology professor, but without any impressive credentials to justify his appointment as a Wallfacer. He is unambitious and uses his position as a Wallfacer to live an opulent lifestyle, which includes a bizarre and rather sexist subplot where Luo instructs his head of security to track down the perfect woman of his dreams. The ETO doesn’t bother to assign a Wallbreaker to Luo, believing that he serves as his own Wallbreaker.

The first half of The Dark Forest is a slog. Whereas The Three-Body Problem focuses on hard science within its tight-knit plot, the first half of The Dark Forest meanders rather aimlessly among existential philosophical musings and the fairly ridiculous plans concocted by the Wallfacers. Another major problem is Luo Ji, whom I find to be quite unlikeable as a main character. Luo pales in comparison to the brilliant, emotionally devastated Ye Wenjie of the first novel. Luo Ji’s overt sexism certainly doesn’t help, which is especially disappointing after having Ye Wenjie as the strong female lead of The Three-Body Problem.

There is also a noticeable drop in the writing quality in The Dark Forest compared to the poetically written and carefully polished text of The Three-Body Problem. This is likely a translation issue, as a different translator was employed for The Dark Forest.

Fortunately, Cixin Liu introduces a plot contrivance (hibernation) for the characters to escape the tedious first half of the book, propelling them 200 years into the future. The plot finally takes off as Luo awakens to an awe-inspiring future full of advanced technology. Readers are in for a wild ride in the second half of the book, which is full of action and unexpected plot twists, including the epic Doomsday Battle. Luo Ji also exhibits some positive character development in the latter part of the book, overcoming his sorry state from the first half.

Although The Dark Forest is a letdown compared to The Three-Body Problem, readers who endure the plodding first half of the book will be rewarded in its fast-paced and thought-provoking second half. The last 100 pages of the book are top-notch, rising to the same level as The Three-Body Problem. I look forward to finishing the trilogy with Death’s End, which returns to the original translator (Ken Liu) who brought The Three-Body Problem so vibrantly to life in the anglophone world.  I expect a full return to form in this final volume.


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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.