Vonne’s Shelf: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Translated into English by Joel Martinsen.

Parental: sparse profanity, violence, no sexuality.

This second of three installment of the Hugo winning “The Three Body Problem” was a harder read than the first. This is likely partly due to translation, and partly due to the complexity of the story.

The main character is now an ignominious astronomer who has been picked as a Wallfacer. With the Trisolaran fleet still four light years out from arriving at our solar system to conquer Earth, and the omnipresent siphons to report and thwart any scientific advancement to defend themselves, the only plan humans can come up with to defeat them is to assign four people to be Wallfacers, meaning they will be given whatever resources humankind has to devise a plan that is only in their minds. Any enigmatic instructions given will be followed, even if many are merely diversions from the true goal.

While the other three Wallfacers gleefully embrace their assignment, Luo Ji – our hero – promptly asks for a remote luxury home with many amenities, lots of booze, and to be left alone. He has no inclination to try to save anyone. Meanwhile, another Wallfacer devises a way to put people in hibernation so they can be wakened at crucial moments during the four-centuries before the Trisolaran fleet actually arrives to continue their plans.

Luo Ji is more interested in finding his idealized vision of a lovely mate. He even sends someone out to find such a person, and someone is found to fit the bill. He is happy to live with her and do nothing. Along comes a son, whom he falls in love with and dotes on.

Most of the Wallfacers attempts fail. In desperation, humans kidnap Luo Ji’s wife and son, put them in hibernation, and thus force Luo Ji to get on his assigned task of finding a way for humankind to survive the onslaught that is on the way. The solution he settles on is fabulously ridiculous, and I won’t spoil the fun of that for you.

Needless to say, he also enters hibernation hoping to be rejoined with his wife and son during the final battle four centuries hence. Yet, he is awoken after two centuries because humans have detected an advance probe coming from the alien fleet that is due to arrive any minute, and they want him to help them investigate its potential and purpose.

During the last two centuries, human society has changed considerably, and even includes vast space fleets of impressive firepower, ready to meet their enemy. The probe arrives, and dashes any lingering concept of victory, proving that humanity is vastly under-equipped to deal with what is coming.

However, Luo Ji’s silly plan has a very serious consequence that even the Trisolarans don’t want to deal with. We’ll let you see that for yourself if you chose to read this.

The translation from Chinese to English is much clunkier than Ken Liu’s translation of the first novel of this trilogy. An example from page 117 of the Tor hardcover, words selected to focus on the point:

“He wanted to…inquire after Say’s mother and the UN’s mother, to inquire after the mothers of all of the delegates at the special session and on the PDC, to inquire after the mothers of the entire human race, and finally to inquire after the nonexistent mothers of the Trisolarans.”

It seems an able translator would have shortened that down to: “He wanted to call everyone a bastard.” The purpose of this is lost on me. It can’t be that the translator balked at using a word often associated with profanity, because later that exact word is used, as well as the occasional worse vulgarity. Ken Liu is translating the third volume, and he is a powerful writer, so I expect good things from the final novel.

Tor’s approach to publishing this trilogy for Western audiences is a bit puzzling. This volume was first published in China in 2008, translated just this year. Earlier this year, “The Three Body Problem” was released and promptly won the Hugo. Now, the second one is here and probably won’t win the award. The third is coming out in the spring of 2016. I wonder why they didn’t take their time and get each one translated more skillfully. Perhaps this one could have been a contender. Whatever…

Some have criticized this book because it contains a lot of Maoist philosophy, as if rehashing the famous Little Red Book of Mao Zedong (or, Tse Dong, if you prefer). Communist theory and attitudes abound. I didn’t have a problem with that, though I do have a problem with Communism itself. This book helped me to see how differently the Chinese people think, and that is helpful. If the main characters are all products of that philosophy, then it would be appropriate to have them think in those terms.

A much bigger problem for me was a scene of such monumentally bad science that I wonder why it still carries the designation of “hard SF.” Imagine the consequences of firing a pistol while floating EVA in space. Recoil would assure you get one shot off before you were doing back flips into deep space or the even deeper gravity well of dear Mother Earth. So, how does one character fire thirty – yes, I said 30! – rounds with deadly accuracy, insuring that ten others get three bullets apiece and get very dead? Ridiculously bad science, that’s how. Ho-hum. Go figure.

Do I recommend this? Well, only because of its place in the center of a trilogy. I am fascinated to find out what happens next. Yet, reading this was often a long, slow slog, like plodding along over a vast wasteland. It was brightened by the occasionally magical scenes, as when Luo Ji envisions his perfect lover and their imaginary interactions. Yet, a few times I wondered if it was all really worth the time, but – upon completion – simply realizing why Luo Ji’s ridiculous plan could actually work was gratifying. So, sure read it. Just don’t expect it to be as good as the first of this trilogy.

VA 1 December 2015

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