Home > Cixin Liu, Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 49: The Dark Forest

Science Fiction Round 49: The Dark Forest

Since I enjoyed reading The Three Body Problem, despite its flaws, I read the next book in the series.

And… um.

It’s not as good as the first one.

While the first book’s plot holes were only about the size of the solar system, the second one scales up to at least the Large Magellanic Cloud, if not the entire Milky Way.


Naturally, I’m going to spoil everything.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Unlike the first book, the title is largely metaphorical. That may be a space elevator coming out from Earth on the cover, although it’s hard to say. (Note: the forest is not made of space elevators.)

Your Science Is Bad, And You Should Feel Bad

For the sake of my own sanity, I’m not going to go into the horrific abuse of quantum entanglement (shudder) or the other superscience that the aliens have.  That’s fine.  I’ll just pretend it’s like Star Trek.  We’re all good here.

The problem comes in when the author (Cixin Liu) completely ignores capabilities that we humans have with present-day technology — and which, therefore, all the incoming invaders (the Trisolarians) should also have access to.

Most importantly: good radio telescopes.

I’m starting to think that Liu didn’t consult with any radio astronomers or SETI experts before writing this.  The first book has the problem that the Trisolarians don’t have good enough radio telescopes to tell that Earth’s radio leakage is coming from the star next door (or even detect it!) and then, when they receive Earth’s deliberate transmission, can’t tell where it’s coming from until Earth sends a reply.

Exhibit A: The Event Horizon Telescope.  While not yet operating, this combination of radio telescopes is expected to be able to resolve (e.g., take detailed pictures of) Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the galaxy.  Which is over 25,000 light-years away.

Exhibit B: The Very-Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and a few other arrays of telescopes allow for very high-resolution pictures of radio sources right now.  The VLBA’s resolution can be as good as 120 micro-arcseconds.  In other words, they could separate two radio sources only separated by about the Earth-Sun distance essentially anywhere in the galaxy that it could see them.  Michael estimates that in a worst-case scenario, there’s only one chance in 100,000 of even a single star being present in a random beam (something like a single pixel).  The odds of more than one star being along the same path is… small.

And I could go on.  The point is, knowing the precise origin in angle for a radio source narrows down the possible sources… by a lot.  For example, pulsars have a distinctive radio signature, and can then be matched up to nearby optical sources via further observations, for example.  We could totally do that if there were aliens signaling us.

Especially if the signal was only 4 light-years away — that would be bright.  And super-obvious.

Worse yet, nifty optical telescopes (as Trisolarians with super-technology should be able to construct) should be able to do things similar to what we can do now — like seeing planets around other stars.

Your Aliens Are Stupid

While The Three Body Problem didn’t worry about it too much, The Dark Forest confronts the Fermi Paradox head-on.

It resolves it by saying that the galaxy is essentially the titular dark forest; in the absence of knowledge about any other actors, each civilization is forced to assume that all others are likely to be hostile, with the potential to become a threat at any time, and act accordingly… destroying any civilization that speaks up.

Earth eventually wards off the Trisolarians with a threat of mutually assured destruction: keep coming, and we’ll tell the galaxy where you are.  And then the hyper-advanced other aliens will destroy us both.

The problem with this resolution is twofold.  First, apparently nobody bothered trying to communicate, be friends, survive better as a group… or maybe we haven’t heard of them.  Haven’t any of these aliens heard of the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma — where cooperation is a better long-term strategy that simply assuming from the get-go that the other party must be malevolent?

The more serious issue is that if the first civilization (or any of the early ones, really) got hyper-tech and decided to kill everyone else, then… there should be no humans.  Because any sufficiently paranoid alien species should be able to destroy any words that shows signs of developing intelligent life, at any time.  They should have the tech to detect the existence of planets, much as we already can, and certainly should be able to find any with nascent life… and destory it.

We see one group blow up a star to destroy its solar system (it’s the only way to be sure, apparently), and even the relatively young Trisolarians have the ridiculous quantum sophons, which can observe basically everything that happens and which should be able to give every single human being inoperable brain cancer.  (Or even better, “unfold” inside of important blood vessels.  Or something.)

If they’re that paranoid, the aliens are also… really… really… clueless… for millions and millions of years… I can’t even.  I just can’t.

And The Humans Are Stupid Too

Rather than be sensible and actually talk to each other, the humans do things like go insane en masse, commit suicide, force “Either we all live, or none of us do” plans, and are generally horrible to each other.

There are a lot of unreasonable things that happen with the near-future and far-future societies in the novel.  A major one is that the impact of a mind-altering technology isn’t very well explored, and doesn’t have much impact on what anyone does.

Another major issue is the backlash against what is called Escapism — or what might be rephrased as, “Well, if we’re getting invaded by aliens, let’s not keep all our eggs in the same basket, eh?”  In fact, the idea of sending a few interstellar ships out to preserve a part of humanity, while the rest prepares for its own defense, is banned as a violation of human rights!  Sure, I would expect extensive arguments about how much to devote to each project, and who gets sent, but… sheesh.

Even worse?  Only one person on the whole planet realizes that the galaxy may be a “dark forest,” filled with worried, self-protective, silent, alien civilizations, and that screaming into the void about yourself will call hellfire down on your own position.  And that we could blackmail the Trisolarians with that threat.  One guy?  Only one guy?

Given what some notable people (such as Stephen Hawking) have had to say on the subject, combined with the expertise of people involved in SETI (e.g., the SETI Institute, where Michael currently works) who have spent a while thinking about this kind of stuff, it’s doubtful that only one person would ever come up with the idea.

But it gets worse.

Your Main Protagonist Is Incredibly Disturbing

Luo Ji, the protagonist for the novel who figured out how to threaten the aliens, is… not really sympathetic.

He’s a self-centered, daydreaming hedonist who really only does what he needs to in order to get by.

When inducted into the Wallfacer project — to concoct secret plans that the Trisolarians will not be able to penetrate — he uses his newfound powers to find himself a lovely home in the middle of nowhere.

And he commissions a friend to find a woman who is exactly like the perfect woman he’s been daydreaming of.  For years.  In exquisite detail.

And bring her to his remote house.

Where he eventually marries her.  And has a kid.  And she’s willing, but… kind of stuck, and has no real choice in the matter anyway.

do I even need to explain how terrifying this is?  I do not sympathize with Luo Ji.  I empathize with the woman he has effectively forced into being his wife.


  1. michaelbusch
    2015/09/20 at 9:05 pm

    I agree with what Rachel has written.

    Also, by way of illustrating how absurd and horrific much of the plot of The Dark Forest is:

    I figured out what the final plot twist was going to be after reading only the prologue and thinking about it for less than five minutes. I have the advantage of being a radar & radio astronomer who works at the SETI Institute, but there are many hundreds of people who would figure it out as fast or faster. And in the situation in the plot, there is more than a century of notice to think about how to call off the Trisolarian invasion.

    That only one person would figure it out is impossible, given the existence of astronomers and engineers in the setting. There was no need for anyone in the story to tolerate or enable Luo Ji’s sexually coercive abuse.

    And so I will not be giving Liu any more money.

  1. 2015/10/17 at 1:53 pm

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