The Dark Forest
Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest is the second instalment of a trilogy that began with The Three Body Problem (spoilers of which immediately follow).
Earth is under attack from distant aliens who not only have superior technology but the ability to suppress technological development on Earth. That means that any attempt to resist the forthcoming attack will have to use already existing technology, albeit with the most ingenious engineering imaginable. The good news, if there is any, is that it will take the alien fleet several centuries to reach the Earth so there will be some time to prepare. The wise people of the planet decide that four individuals should be selected and provided with all resources required to lead the resistance. Since the aliens have agents on Earth able to communicate with their own home planet, it is necessary to conduct all activities and complete plans in secret. The ability to hibernate for extended periods means that the people involved (the Wall Facers) can order some development to take place and then be woken up perhaps decades later when engineers have been able to work out how technical difficulties might be overcome. Of the four selected, one is Chinese and since this is a book by a Chinese author writing (at least initially) for a Chinese audience, it is not unreasonable to suppose that it is the Chinese guy whose story we will be following the most.
I do teach East Asian literature to a certain extent and one of the questions that arise is not so much the differences it exhibits from western literature but how people from one context can appreciate the literature from the other context. There are some issues to do with personal and family relationships to understand, of course, since these are often more important in East Asia and structure the ways in which people treat and communicate with each other. The subtle usage of a diminutive or pet name, for example, can reveal a torrent of understanding about a relationship which would not necessarily be available for western readers. There are also issues related to historical and cultural allusions and to the meaning of high culture context items such as food. However, perhaps the most important difference (and, I suspect, the reason why East Asian literature is not often recognised for literary prizes) is the general absence of the Freudian exploration of character. In western literature, it is now almost unimaginable to read fiction and not expect to make some analysis of the characters based on our understanding of their psychology. We judge the characters based on their supposed virtues and vices and expect them to behave in a way which is consistent with their personalities. This approach is often absent from Asian literature and Cixin Liu’s work is an example of this. Characters are to be considered and, if necessary, judged according to such criteria as the extent to which they fulfil their roles in society and as part of family networks and how well they embody recognised principles such as Confucian or neo-Confucian propriety. This might prove to be an obstacle for some readers who will want and expect to be given insights into the characters based on psychology which are not made available here. This would be a pity because this is a fascinating book with some genuinely philosophical inquiries into humanity’s place in the universe and the individual’s place in society, not to mention the consideration of how society would cope, if at all, with the approach of what seems likely to be an existential threat to our civilization.
At the end of the novel, there is a difference in the relationship between humanity and the aliens that means the conclusion of the trilogy – Death’s End – will be based on a different kind of problem. I look forward to finding out what it will be. The current book, unobtrusively translated by Joel Martinson, is lucid and well-paced without being frenetic and there is a chance for the reader to take a look around the world. A new language has been developed, in which a large amount of English vocabulary has been incorporated into standard Chinese, which indicates the general dominance of Chinese society in a plurality of different natures and cultures. Globalization of communications and commerce appear to have eroded most political ideologies and a form of global consensus is used to deal with transnational issues on a generally rational basis. This is, again, a typically Chinese approach. Let’s see how well it deals with humanity’s next crisis.