The Dark Forest picks up where the Three-Body Problem left off. It tells the story of humanity preparing for an alien invasion that will occur hundreds of years in the future. Technology is locked into stagnation by the clever intervention of hyperintelligent AI the size of atomic particles, referred to as sophons, which have been deployed to interfere with particle physics experiments to create erroneous results. This technological block is supposed to keep humanity from progressing in the field of materials science. Can humanity rise to face this seemingly impossible task in time to stop the coming invasion?
Even though the book tries to present itself with a dark aura of catastrophe and impending doom in the face of a conflict with a vast technological difference it still manages to come off as naively optimistic. The idea that humanity could manage to muster even the slightest unified effort to face a threat that will not be real for four hundred years I find ultimately ridiculous.
Faced with this threat an (almost) unified human council called the Planetary Defense Council organizes what they call the Wallfacer project. They give 4 individuals unlimited and unquestioned access to resources to make plans in their own minds where the alien surveillance cannot instantly be aware of them. It is an original idea and plays out like a philosophical chess game as each of the Wallfacers develop their public and private plans and the alien intelligence and the co-opted human Wallbreakers move to counter them. This is easily the best part of the book though it would have been far more interesting (and effective) if the characters that were involved were more human and less robotic. The first three individuals chosen as Wallfacers are known political leaders and the third, the main character Luo Ji is a underachieving intellectual everyman whose qualification for the project is that he briefly studied cosmic sociology. Each Wallfacer develops their own stance in trying to face down the coming destruction, each plan is used (somewhat clumsily) to showcase different possible philosophical reactions.
As the book progresses we take a cryogenic time leap with our main characters as they rush forward in time to enact their plans to face the invasion. It is interesting to see how humanity has changed in the intervening years and it is refreshing to see that the pessimism of the earlier era has been done away with and the reassuring size and might of the earth space navy is exciting to hear about leading to an epic showdown with the alien vanguard, easily the second best part of the novel.
I appreciated the interweaving of natural imagery and passages of travel out into the wilderness with the harsh metal of the giant future-cities and space fleets that dominate the narrative. But the subplot where Luo Ji imagines a girlfriend while writing a novel and then asks his security guard to find a real girl like her and then subsequently marries her and has her used against him to motivate him to actually do something other than engage in dissolute hedonism was creepy, unnecessary and downright demeaning to female characters everywhere.
The final twist of the novel is a fascinating plan executed on foreshadowing given in the first few pages of the book and using almost nothing from the intervening five hundred pages. This conclusion is intellectually titillating but narratively unfulfilling, though it does set up a reversal and a massive widening of scope possible in the third book. It presents a sinister interpretation of the Fermi paradox that will be interesting to see play out in book three.
As with The Three-Body Problem I find myself reading the book and being fascinated by the thought experiments and the ideas that are being explored while at the same time being bored by the story and characters and confused by the emotions and motivations that are expressed. The idea that the elite professional and intellectual thinkers of the world would find the assured destruction of humanity in 400 years more intellectually and emotionally crippling that the knowledge of their own personal death in 30-40 years shows an interesting collectivist mindset alien to me. I am struggling to decide how much of that is from the divergence in shared cultural perspective and how much of it is just poor storytelling. Either way, this book is interesting and original but I can’t recommend it highly due to systemic problems with the characters and narrative style.