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but in the spirit of the story as well as the spirit of the series (THE THREE BODY PROBLEM had its share of hand-wavium as well)
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 26, 2016
THE DARK FOREST - book two of the Remembrance of Earth's Past series - is the sequel to the Hugo Award winning THE THREE BODY PROBLEM by Chinese author Cixin Liu and translated by award winning author Ken Liu. THE DARK FOREST is translated by Joel Martinsen, while the third book in the trilogy, DEATH'S END, will once again be translated by Ken Liu (I'll revisit the subject of the translators a later on in this review).
At then end of THE THREE BODY PROBLEM, we know that the Trisolarans, an alien race from a system with three suns and whose system is collapsing, is planning a hostile takeover of Earth and are on their way to the Solar System. They'll arrive in roughly 400 years, and there doesn't appear, on the surface, that anything can be done to stop them. Complicating the issue is the presence of tiny computers made of protons called sophons, which can not only monitor all human information, but instantly transfer that information back to Trisolaris. This has the nasty consequence of rendering transparent any plans humanity comes up with to try to stop the Trisolarans. Yes, this is a bit of hand-wavium that may be hard for some readers to swallow, but in the spirit of the story as well as the spirit of the series (THE THREE BODY PROBLEM had its share of hand-wavium as well) I'm more than happy to ignore it. This kind of hocus pocus was prevalent back in the day, and while it doesn't satisfy modern
readers of science fiction, I still prefer a bit of cosmic cool stuff in my reading (There is more than enough reading material and podcast discussion about actual science in science fiction to make it believable that I don't need to talk about it here. I refuse to spoil my fun.).
And so the "Wallfacer" project is born. Each Wallfacer is charged with coming up with a plan to defeat the Trisolaran fleet coming to attack earth. They are to do it in secret, not letting anybody know what they're doing, and they are given all the resources they need to accomplish their goal. They have counterparts, designated by the Trisolarans, called Wallbreakers. The Wallbreakers are to study their assigned Wallfacer until the figure out what that Wallfacer's true plan is. One Wallfacer does not have a Wallbreaker. His name is Luo Ji, who is considered by the Trisolarans to be the most dangerous of the Wallfacers. While the other three Wallfacers are well known public figures, Luo Ji is a nondescript astronomer who doesn't understand why he is now the subject of all this attention and scrutiny.
THE DARK FOREST, then, is the story of how humanity through the Wallfacers, and especially Luo Ji, try to find a way to fight the Trisolarans and defeat them.
The story takes place in a couple of distinct time periods, with the second being some 200 years after the events of the beginning of the novel. In that second time period, humanity feels that it has found a way to defeat the Trisolarans, and is no longer worried about the impending invasion. Life has returned to normal.
I hesitate to give much more in the way of details, because giving one detail will necessitate giving another, and another, and another, and so on. Needless to say, and now that the book has been out for over a year, I don't think it's giving anything away to say that the Trisolarans are stronger than humanity thought, and that the technology that the humans have is powerless to stop the incoming invasion fleet. As luck would have it, Luo Ji has a big role in the climax of the book, which sets the stage for DEATH'S END, the final novel in the trilogy.
I had difficulty staying focused on the novel. I did not find the characters engaging, and story did not hold my interest. Time and again conclusions were made based on what seems like intuition; maybe it's me, but time and again one thing one would lead to another, at which point a character would say "ah, it must obviously be *this*". And just about every one of those times, my reaction would be "Huh? How did they come to THAT conclusion?" Because of this, I found it difficult to engage with the story, to suspend my disbelief. Funny, I know, that I'll buy the concept of sophons that can immediately transmit information over light years but can't but these character reactions. And I guess that's the point - I couldn't believe the way the people were behaving, the decisions they were making, and the risks they were taking. A great deal of it made little to no sense to me, and that took me right out of the story.
What's good about it? Grand concepts, space battles, mysterious aliens and their superior technology. Cosmic ideas, the future of humanity hanging in the balance. All that cool stuff.
With regard to the translation of the book. While I clearly do not know Chinese and thus can't truly judge as to whether this is a good translation from the Chinese or not, I can say that I wasn't as engaged by the style or the prose this time around. I can only imagine how difficult it is to translate a novel from one language to another; however, I didn't find the writing as riveting this time as I did for THE THREE BODY PROBLEM. Ken Liu returns as the translator for DEATH'S END. I'm interested in reading his translation of that work.
All in all, for me, a bit of a disappointment, although the book is saved by the grand scope of it all. Hopefully DEATH'S END will pick it back up and send the story to the glorious finish I think it deserves.