Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2015 (559 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
While the meaning of the title isn't revealed until late in the novel, The Dark Forest seems aptly named in its earliest chapters. The novel's setting, plot and atmosphere seem to exude thick, rich darkness. But a dark forest also has depth and enchantment -- a degree of melancholic beauty.
Cixin Liu's newest English translation from his acclaimed trilogy -- the second book of the Three-Body series -- is not a candle to light darker days, but a gift to the introspective: an invitation to put away the beach reading and revel in the coming darkness of winter and the philosophical frame of mind it brings. The effort and focus needed to fully engage with this novel are well-rewarded by a rare literary experience.
Liu made history recently when he (deservingly) won science fiction's coveted Hugo award, the first Chinese national to do so, for last year's English translation of his 2008 novel (the first of the trilogy), The Three-Body Problem.
Translations can be a tricky thing. Jay Rubin was quoted in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago, saying, "When you read (Japanese author) Haruki Murakami, you're reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time... (He) wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine." Murakami is an international sensation, but that also means only a fraction of his fans have read his actual words as written. They might wonder what they're missing, or perhaps even what they may be gaining, in the English prose as compared to the Japanese.
But there may be less cause for worry with Liu. The Three-Body Problem was a first-contact story but also a carefully reasoned philosophical exercise. When books grapple with such weighty ideas -- when the implications drawn are so profound -- the language in which they happen to be expressed might be beside the point. Atmosphere, tone and meaning seem like necessary by-products of the ideas in Cixin's novels, independent of choice of words.
At the opening of The Dark Forest, the human race no longer needs to wonder whether there is other intelligent life in the universe. Indeed there are other civilizations, and one of them has sent a fleet to Earth to wipe humanity out and settle the planet. It will take 400 years of travel time to arrive, but meanwhile the alien force has a constant low-level presence, using advanced technology to infiltrate all defence plans as well as communicate with human terrorists seeking species suicide.
Over four centuries, humanity goes through periods of absolute fatalism and wild-eyed optimism. The reader is left guessing as to just how one-sided a fight the so-called Doomsday Battle will ultimately be, and the world's most brilliant minds draw on ideas of game theory and military strategy to determine how and whether humanity might possibly prevail against an overwhelmingly superior force.
But this is only one part of the story. The question of how human beings should be spending the limited time left to them is also at the forefront of many humans' minds. An entire species is face to face with its own mortality, and Liu engages with the resulting social implications of that fact as much as he builds up the tension of his ultimate intellectual showdown.
In The Dark Forest, Liu has accomplished a rarity in series fiction -- a second entry in a trilogy that equals its predecessor not only in quality, but in its ability to stand on its own. If The Three-Body Problem weren't a must-read in its own right, it would actually be perfectly fine to read The Dark Forest alone. The only question: with the conclusion being as satisfying as it is, what could be left for a third book?
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.