Notes/First impressions: The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu, translation by Joel Martinsen

August 30th, 2015 by Reinder

I read The Dark Forest the week before its prequel, The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 2015. Two-thirds of the way through it, my reading was interrupted for a few days and I had to think hard about whether I wanted to pick it up again. I did, and in the end I was glad I did, but my God, what an unholy mess this novel is, and did I ever have to work hard to make it through the first third of the book.

The Three-Body Problem won its Hugo despite its faults, which were very obvious: Liu’s characters act like puppets, mere functional devices to keep the story going, to push the many interesting, inspired ideas that are also there. Their emotional and actual responses are implausible, their motivation often only hinted at or even completely arbitrary. The ideas were the real stars of The Three-Body Problem, and because the novel hung together well enough as a story, the ideas ensured the novel got enthusiastic responses that took it all the way to the most prestigious award in science fiction fandom.

Wellp, those flaws haven’t been mitigated any in The Dark Forest; I would say they have been exacerbated. Instead of a protagonist who is a bit of a blank slate, we now have one who does whatever it is he does for no good reason at all, and whose actions in the novel include inventing a perfect woman after his romance-writer girlfriend challenges him to (oddly, the fact that she issues this challenge is one of the few things any character does that make sense - the idea that writing is addictive and shapes reality). He then leaves his girlfriend for this imaginary woman, and later, when he is provided with near-infinite financial resources, he locates a real woman who is just like her and has her brought to his mansion, where they start a deep romantic relationship. Prior to this, Liu saw fit to include a few Neal Stephenson-esque digs at post-modern, English Literature Department-approved writing. I kid you not. It doesn’t help that the terms in which this perfect woman is described include lines like

“He was completely overcome by her childlike nature.”
“You’re like the blank space in a traditional painting: pure, but to a mature appreciation, infinitely appealing…”
“She tilted her head, giving his heart a jolt. The naïve expression was one he had seen on her countless times before…”*

I would have thrown the book violently across the room there and then if I hadn’t been reading it in a tent, on an expensive MacBook Pro. I did, however, start live-tweeting my reading for a while and was about ready to switch to hate-reading mode. Trust me, there was plenty to hate, including one paragraph that entirely disqualifies the protagonist from being the hero of absolutely anything, no matter what else he does in the story (which includes some very heroic acts that save the Earth, for the time being, but all of those are done by authorial fiat, because everything in a work of fiction is. I’d write more on that if these blog posts were serious literary criticism, which they're not). I would HOPE that the paragraph in question is only the protagonist’s opinion, not the writer’s, and I’m really surprised that more readers haven’t picked up on it, based on the reviews that I’ve read.

And the plot? Spans two centuries, or rather, fast-forwards two centuries midway through. In a way, this redeems The Dark Forest - moving the action to a more distant-future Earth and removing the romance for the time being allows Liu to do what he is good at: surprising the reader with strong world-building, action sequences that thrill and also surprise, and generally letting his powerful, but well-disciplined imagination run loose. It does not make for a coherent novel, let alone one that deserves another Hugo after putting the reader through all that bullshit in the first third. But it creates the impression that after that very bad novel with the ill-conceived romantic bits, you get to read a second, short novel that is a lot better.

If I was handing out star ratings, which I’m not, because these blog posts are not reviews, the final third would rescue The Dark Forest from being a two-star book and qualify it as a three-star one. Was it worth sticking with the book for that long, though? I’m honestly not sure. There are always other books to read and a book that is worth three stars overall takes time away from reading one that is truly great.

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