January 17, 2016

Review: The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to last year's Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem. I read that book and didn't care for it much; the author pretty much sacrificed his characters to his ideas, to put it mildly. However, it was voted Best Novel, so when this one came out, I decided to give it a try.

This is a (marginally) better book than Three Body, but I wouldn't really call it good. I wonder if that has something to do with the translation. The translator for this book is Joel Martinsen, and the prose seems to flow far more smoothly. Unfortunately, that doesn't cure the author's propensity for great whacking chunks of technobabble throughout the book, to the point where I felt stuck inside a bad Star Trek episode. (I could have spent my entire life without knowing how to, in every excruciating detail, construct bullets from an iron meteorite that will penetrate a space suit, kill the person inside, and disintegrate on contact, for example.) This reaches its zenith in a frenetic action piece which I suppose the author thought would look good on a movie screen; it's where an advance probe sent out by the invading Trisolarans, called a "droplet" and constructed out of a material "a hundred times [stronger] than the sturdiest material in the Solar System", that has a surface like "a smooth mirror" (repeated ad nauseum), busts loose and destroys the entire human space fleet, a thousand warships, in twenty minutes. (Yeah, I know that sounds totally implausible. You'll just have to read the book to see if it passes muster. That is, if you can stand plowing through this five-hundred-page monster.)

The characterization in this book is not any better than the first, and in many ways is worse, particularly in regards to the female characters; to put it bluntly, the book is nearly a total sausage-fest. I guess this wouldn't be so much of a problem if you could tell the male characters apart, but with the possible exception of the nominal protagonist, Luo Ji, they're as interchangeable and bland as upside-down puzzle pieces. (After a while, I started skipping over the names entirely, as these people had no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.) I suppose these cardboard characters are a minimal improvement over the tissue-thin characters of the first book, and in any case it's the hard science fiction ideas that propel this book and the series as a whole. However, I am not a physics student, and I do not need to know exactly how a thousand warships were destroyed, spread out over fifteen excruciating pages. If there are no people aboard any of those ships I have come to know and care about, the author is just spinning his wheels, and all those deaths mean nothing to me as a reader.

(This entire sequence pretty much meant nothing anyway, because the aforementioned Luo Ji singlehandedly stops the Trisolaran invasion, basically by running a giant bluff. The aliens are not poker players, that's for sure. Again, you'll have to read the book to find out. But I felt more than a bit cheated, because the climax meant this entire doorstop could have been reduced to novella length at the most, and I wouldn't have had to waste all those days on it.)

I'm sure some people will love this book, as it's the kind of old-fashioned idea-rich narrative that isn't published as much as it used to be. Unfortunately, it leaves me cold.

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