THE DARK FOREST – Cixin Liu (2008, translation 2015)

The Dark Forest

The depth and expanse of deep space exhibited an arrogance that left no support for the mind or the eyes.

This novel is an entirely different beast than its predecessor. I liked The Three-Body Problem a lot, and looked forward to reading this sequel. I can’t say I liked it as much. Don’t get me wrong: there’s lots of good stuff in these pages, but as a whole it didn’t live up to the expectations I had.

I think there are two main reasons for my disappointment. The most important one is probably that I didn’t buy the actions and emotions of an important character: humanity itself. (Liu uses lots of exposition to tell the story, and the way he does that results in humanity as a whole becoming a character. This is reinforced by having the individual characters have lots of meetings and conferences with the United Nations and similar organizations that speak for the human race as a whole.) In a way, the premise of this book is similar to Seveneves: it looks like civilization is going to be destroyed in the future, and humanity has to devise plans to deal with this inevitability. In Seveneves a cataclysm will happen in a couple of years, in The Dark Forest the apocalypse is 4 centuries away. There has been some discussion on the fact that things happen more or less orderly in Seveneves: the response of the international community to the threat is quite rational for the most part, and things get done neatly. Wether such a smooth, regulated reaction is likely or even plausible is indeed debatable. The same can be said about how Earth responds to the Trisolarian crisis in The Dark Forest, with the difference that in this book the reactions are often irrational and not orderly. A certain degree of erratic, emotional behavior is to be expected when aliens are going to invade, but I’m not sure if I buy the particular stuff Liu envisions. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the way “Escapism” – the idea that humans should flee into space – is viewed and handled by the international organization – extremely negatively – seems highly unlikely. I’m pretty sure humans would follow multiple paths to deal with such a threat, and allocating some resources to developing a kind of Ark would be part of that. My skepticism isn’t limited to said reaction to Escapism, there was quite a lot of other stuff that made me frown too. In short: humanity didn’t feel like a real character to me.

The other reason The Dark Forest wasn’t as good as The Three-Body Problem is the fact that it feels a bit disjointed. This is not the result of the fact that it jumps ahead in time a few times, but because Liu has the tendency to inject short story-like ideas into the main narrative. The Dark Forest at times felt like a collection of ideas, not as one story. The ideas are explored for a few pages, after which the author moves on – take certain aspects of Luo Ji’s love story for instance. I’ve read The Wandering Earth, his short story collection, from which I recognized more than a few ideas (like the ants, or the killing computer virus). I think that reading sharpened my senses a bit to this aspect of Liu’s writing. This disjointedness in the narrative is also reinforced by the fact that part of the story is build around a structure that is kind of like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: the 4 “Wallfacer” characters – those Wallfacers are in itself a great, great idea, by the way, but I expected more of them.

An additional disjointing factor was the strange kind of comedy Liu sprinkled this book with. At times I had the feeling that Liu was playing around – that cameo of Osama Bin Laden! People tapping walls out of habit! Or take an ostensibly serious idea like the ban on environmental protection organizations. That felt like a joke and very well might be one: what I’ve learned from reading The Wandering Earth too is that Liu doesn’t take stuff serious all the time. (On a sidenote, a main theme of this book is hubris: humanity taking itself too serious.) 

Aside from these issues, I did enjoy The Dark Forest. This is the full-blown science fiction book for which The Three-Body Problem masterfully laid the groundwork. It dragged a bit in the middle, but there’s both poetry and good ideas aplenty to be found in the book’s 512 pages…

The simple, immediate reply to his statement, light as a dragonfly touching on the water, shut down his brain’s ability to think and made his mind a total blank.


The universe had once been bright, too. For a short time after the big bang, all matter existed in the form of light, and only after the universe turned to burnt ash did heavier elements precipitate out of the darkness and form planets and life. Darkness was the mother of life and of civilization.

Because of how the story progressed in this book, I have the feeling the final installment of this trilogy will again be something totally different. Death’s End is set for release in August 2016. I’ll pick it up for sure, eagerly.


5 responses to “THE DARK FOREST – Cixin Liu (2008, translation 2015)

  1. Everything will be ended , except for the Death itself


  2. Hoping to read this entire trilogy once the translation of book three is out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yeah, that’s probably the best way to tackle serial works 🙂 On the other hand, most of the time I like some time between reading installments of a series, especially when they are good, to savor the moment.


  3. Intriguing, despite the shortcomings… But I need to read book 1 first!
    Well, there’s a way to correct that mistake… 🙂
    Interesting review! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At first I had a hard time figuring out why I didn’t like this as much as the first book, so maybe I devoted too much words on the shortcomings in the review, since it’s definitely recommended.


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