Thursday, October 15, 2015

Book Review: The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest
Cixin Liu (author), Joel Martin (translator)
Science fiction

Earlier this year I gave a thumbs up to The Three-Body Problem. I wasn't the only person to do so, either. It's not necessarily an effortless read, but it's worth the effort. So I was definitely looking forward to its sequel, The Dark Forest.

I ended up liking this one, too--but it wasn't always easy, and I have more reservations about it. It's a choppier read, for one thing. Maybe it's the author, maybe it's the culture, maybe it's the (different) translator, but I found the prose somewhat harder to swallow in The Dark Forest. There are more large chunks of exposition, more dialogue that sound like monologue, more plot threads that go nowhere, and more jarring shifts of time and content. I also have to say that Cixin Liu has some extremely odd notions about human motivation.

Part of the problem is structural. The Dark Forest has some of the the same problems that Neal Stephenson's Seveneves has: an elongated and somewhat disjointed timeframe, a lot of technical detail, and a looming disaster that nonetheless isn't an immediate plot driver. There's also, in both cases, a lack of focus on a central character. Indeed, in The Dark Forest, I think Liu chose the wrong character as his protagonist.

The end of the book, however, is good enough to tilt me into thumbs-up territory. The central problem is addressed in a way that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging. It's clever, it's perfectly well foreshadowed, and it's even fairly (not perfectly) original. I have a nagging feeling that it could have been done earlier in the internal timeline, but I could argue myself out of that.

As to whether you should read it ... it depends. If you couldn't get into or didn't like The Three-Body Problem, don't bother. If you liked it but don't feel the burning desire to find out more--a pardonable reaction; the first book stands alone quite well--then maybe The Dark Forest isn't for you. On the other hand, I suspect a lot of readers will be more engaged in the large-scale saga of The Three-Body Problem than in the characters and situations. If that's your reaction, you're going to want to find out how it ends.

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