Sunday 11 June 2017

The Dark Forest book review

The Dark Forest
by Cixin Liu
translated by Joel Martinsen
China:  2008
(English: 2015)

On a personal note, my glee has me beyond the moon and past the stars.  For many months, my reading enjoyment has been like a long road trip where I end up sleeping on friends’ musty old couches, in tents on the cold ground (with a nasty root digging at me) and in skeevy motels with saggy busted spring beds.  One star experience after one star experience.  I tell you, my morale dropped to dangerous lows.  Where could a fellow find a decent book??  I was becoming certain no modern author could write a coherent page of prose.

Well, finally a quality hotel with a firm, king-size mattress, fresh sheets and fluffy pillows!  Lovely.

The Dark Forest is a book by acclaimed Chinese SF author, Cixin Liu.  A rich, well-written, well-thought out, well-researched book of science fiction.  As is my wont, I’m not going to delve into the plot.  There are any number of synopses available at the click of a keyboard and they can reap your ire for careless spoilers.

After innumerable books with clumsy, or zero, description of the world and characters, I revelled in the vivid writing.  The first chapter is done from the viewpoint of an ant crawling about its business.  Magnificent stuff.  Whether an alpine meadow or the Louvre or geostationary orbit, Mr. Cixin put me in the scene with real people.

The hearty endorsement on the cover by the esteemed David Brin forewarned me that I would need to bring my brain to this party.  Cutting edge astrophysics, futuristic thinking, alien psychologies, and sprawling interstellar philosophies all kept my brain doing calisthenics with a happy huffing and puffing.  It hasn’t been exercised like this in a long while.

I don’t know how to portion out the different stylistics of the writing.  How much is the “Chinese Method”, how much is Mr. Cixin’s personal style and how much is down to the translating of Mr. Martinsen?  Anyhow, the book moves in a different tempo than I’m used to.  Not unpleasant, just another requirement of the exercise regime.

Speaking of the Chinese origins, I did have some struggle to keep the Chinese names straight.  I had nearly succumbed to crying in confusion with a few early scenes until I finally read the supplied footnotes.  I felt quite silly for not reading them immediately.  “Xiao” and “lao” are honorifics sort of in the price range of “uncle” or “sir”.  NOW I understood there weren’t four or five characters bouncing out and in the scene, but only two, with one sometimes being called “Murray Lindsay” and sometimes “Uncle Murray”.  So, a piece of advice:  read the footnotes when they come up!

As a side note, the novel is far more international in aspect than I expected.  It keeps coming back to China, but the characters and references roam the countries of the Earth and beyond.  Nearly as many Western references exist as Asian and Chinese.

The most unfortunate fact was that this is Book #2 in a trilogy comprised of The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death’s End.  Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, in the edition I have was there any mention that I had picked up book #2.  This is not any fault of Mr. Cixin.  This is a sloppy and possibly unsavoury action by the publisher.

This gave me a weird vibe as I read.  Various significant acts and personal details coming from the antagonists didn’t cause nearly enough commotion in the plot.  “These (aliens) managed to inflict this stupendous (action) on Earth and all humanity, but everyone treats it like a regrettable rain shower at the beach??”  Now I know that lack of reaction is because these acts and details all happened in book #1!  Everyone got it out of their system (I assume) back then.

BUT, the cool flip side of this is my reading was not impeded significantly.  Other than a puzzled annoyance hitting here and there, I fell into no gaping plot holes of utter confusion.  For me, The Dark Forest read almost like a standalone novel.  Well done, I say.

The plot itself is dark, but does not descend to the relentlessly grim tone that amateur writers believe makes their work “serious”.  Even with the dire events and harrowing moments compounding with the accumulating pages, somehow I stayed on my feet.  Like some sort of “Rocky” script, the story left me wobbling on my pins, black, blue and bloody, but still…feisty.  Determined.  After I catch my breath and wait for the spinning to stop, I will continue on to the third volume.  Knowing what I know, I regret I won’t be backtracking to the first book.