Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu

Last year the first part of this trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was published by Tor. American publishers see translated works as a risk because of the cost of translations so works like this are unfortunately something of a rarity still. Tor cleverly made use of the reputation of the translator of the first volume, Chinese-American author Ken Liu, to draw attention to it and that worked very well indeed. It won the Hugo Award this summer and has certainly been one of the most discussed novels in science fiction this year.The Hugo vote this year is highly controversial because of the Puppies' attempt to manipulate the shortlist. In fact, it was only added to the shortlist because one of the other candidates withdrew. Personally I feel that in a year with normal voting practices it would have had a shot at the award as well. It is definitely Chinese but also firmly rooted in western science fiction, making it very accessible to western readers. While I doubt that The Dark Forest can repeat its predecessor's feat, I do think it is a worthy sequel. If you liked the The Three-Body Problem, you will want to read this book.

The Trisolarans are coming and their mission is to exterminate humanity. The human race has four centuries to prepare but with the help of the sophons, sub-atomic particles, they can listen in on any kind of human communication. Humanity is completely exposed to the Trisolarans except for one place: the privacy of the human mind. To exploit this one advantage, the Wallfacer project is started. Four people overseen by a UN committee  are granted the freedom to work on a plan to defeat the Trisolarans without having to outline it to anyone. They are granted access to enormous resources and are expected to defeat the enemy through deceit and misdirection. A dangerous and desperate plan but it seems like the only chance at survival.

The translation of this second volume is in the hands of Joel Martinsen of whom, other than what it says on the back flap, I know absolutely nothing. A quick search doesn't turn up any other translations by his hand. He follows Ken Liu's lead closely though. There is no noticeable difference in tone of voice and Martinsen is equally reluctant to add footnotes, only doing so in cases where the English-language reader is very unlikely to understand a reference to Chinese history or literature. The switch in translator will not bother the reader. I understand Liu is translating the final novel in the trilogy so continuity in the translation should not be a problem.

The novel covers about two centuries. Liu introduces a new calendar in the novel, counting the years from the start of the crisis. In a way, a lot of things stay the same during this long timespan. The Trisolarans use the sophons to limit humanity's progress in physics, essentially allowing only improvements in already existing technology. Quantum computers for instance, cannot be developed so after a certain point there is no increase in the computing power of processors any more. The technological explosion, as Liu calls it, stalls. It leaves the author free to speculate on what such a threat will do to human society and economy.

In his Big Idea piece on John Scalzi's blog Liu said he was writing a worst case scenario. No benevolent aliens or a prospect of a harmonious federation of planets of the people in this story. One of the major themes Liu examines is what the prospect of near certain extinction would do to the human psyche. It shows up in several forms but despair seems to take over every time. Liu describes the severe economic effects of creating a war economy when there isn't an enemy to fight yet. Something that will eventually lead to a collapse some time in the twenty-first century followed by a renaissance some decades later. Personally I'm wondering if something that is four centuries in the future will affect the human psyche to that degree -  we can't even be made to pay attention to a number of environmental problems that most of us most definitely will live to see after all -  but it is an interesting scenario.

Like the previous novel the author, and many of his characters, think about large groups of people. He pays attention to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters to illustrate a larger point. In themselves they are not all that interesting. Something that is probably more of an issue than in the previous book. I thought Ye Wenjie was a more interesting character than Luo Ji, the central character in this book. Luo keeps his cards close to his chest, which I suppose makes sense for a Wallfacer, but it doesn't do much for our insight into his motivations.

The Dark Forest contains a number of massive scenes in space. For the hard science fiction fan this is probably the highlight of the novel. Not all readers will like them but, as he has shown in The Three-Body Problem,  Liu is good at writing such scenes. In this novel he is absolutely ruthless in them. He so thoroughly quashes humanity's previously held beliefs  that it has made me wonder what he can come up with for the third installment of the trilogy.

Liu's story is again firmly grounded in western science fiction. He formulates an answer to the Fermi paradox for instance, and refers to some of the genre's great works (Foundation, A Clockwork Orange) and he doesn't hide his admiration of Arthur C. Clarke. As we move into the future and Liu is able to use less of China's actual history and as the story takes on more of a global perspective, it becomes even more accessible for the western reader. The Dark Forest delivers everything that The Three-Body Problem does and a bit more. If I had to choose my favourite it would still be the first book because of the historical background used in much of that story but I suspect many readers will find the second book a step up. It is a very dark story though, it will be interesting to see if the final volume, Death's End, will show us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. It is scheduled for April next year. I for one can't wait to get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: The Dark Forest
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 512
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Joel Martinsen
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7708-1
First published: 2008

No comments:

Post a Comment