My mind has been expanded significantly by the first two books of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The scale and scope of the undertaking is truly on par with the greatest science fiction I’ve ever read. Hard science and theoretical ideas run deep, but remain very human and rational.
It’s a syncretic hyper-extension of the way we think and behave pushed into a highly orchestrated future that requires deep conceptualization to imagine.
Comparisons to Asimov are apt.
Cixin Liu boldly describes human culture and philosophy facing impending first contact with an alien race that has advanced technology with a richness of supposition and detail that captures a wide range of human emotion and response. He does this with very few characters and an elaborate, all-encompassing style. The details are exceptionally well thought-out.
The setup incorporates the vast distances in space and a nuanced portrayal of human society dealing with an enemy about whom little is known and who will not arrive to attack for hundreds of years.
I am continually taken aback at the breadth of this work. Liu’s narrative is centuries long. It’s on the scale of James Blish (Cities in Flight) or, as has been noted, Frank Herbert (Dune).
While humans invent cryogenic hibernation and a space armada and other standard responses of sci-fi to deal with this situation, there are unique circumstances.
The sophons, a pan-dimensional use of protons that travel across space, arriving at Earth to unfold and manipulate our reality, was a mind-blowing central concept of The Three-Body Problem. In Book Two, Liu posits Wallfacers and their companion Wallbreakers as a complex reaction to this tactic of the Trisolarans.
Since the Trisolarans can see, read and influence human behavior, the only safe space to shield anything from them is within the human mind. The Wallfacers are created and tasked with never writing anything down, never explaining what they do or why they do it to anyone. They embark on their plans to resist the Trisolarans independent of social and military planners. Wallfacers become the central pre-occupation of The Dark Forest. It is conceptually impressive and flourishes into a great plot.
The Trisolarans do not make any significant appearance until the climactic battle at the end of this volume and are peripheral players throughout. This allows Liu to explore humanity through the behavior – and responses to the behavior – of the Wallfacers in a way that is totally original.
So now Liu has to describe humanity’s initial response – filled with variety: those who give up, those who would fight, those who would defect to the enemy – and to posit the extension of all these reactions 200 years into the future.
It’s galactic in scale and all just a little hard to swallow by the time you get to the division of this book between Earth of the late-20th/early 21st century and human culture of the year 2200. But to Liu’s credit The Dark Forest is more human and relationships are deeper, more sensitive and believable.
Cixin Liu grew significantly as a writer between the two works. He takes on the psychology of humanity faced with the cosmic situation he has created and works through abstract philosophical responses to create a range of believable, if summarized, cultural changes in us.
I liked The Dark Forest better than The Three-Body Problem because Liu goes further to extrapolate his visions of how humanity behaves in the face of the complex circumstance he has created. He includes and fills-out more intimate reactions and attempts to create a broad image of us and how we react – intelligently but oh, so human.
The Wallfacer Project is the primary mechanism for this. That the story advances 200 years in a leap of human culture is the second. Without giving too much away, allow me to say that many of the characters manage to hibernate and emerge hundreds of years later which results in a fascinating conceit:
Liu convincingly describes near-future humans who have survived post-Trisolaran contact. They’ve endured The Great Ravine – an epic depression of global scale that reduced human population by billions – and an era that forced most cities underground. Their tech is smart.
But this future human society is confronted daily by waking up hibernators, characters we know and appreciate from our time, awakened on schedule to proceed with the ultimate plan of Earth’s defense. It creates a truly original relationship between us and our future selves.
In some ways Liu’s future human relationships are a near-perfect emulation of contemporary generational relationships between the Digital Generation and anybody over 40. The clunky 21st-century hibernators call them “kids” though they’re a highly advanced civilization.
The Dark Forest is considerably more about philosophy, politics and social and military strategy than The Three-Body Problem, which was more computing and science. But it’s pretty heady stuff.
All of it is headed toward first contact and when the 2000-spacecraft-strong armada of Earth finally meets the first craft from Trisolaris, the story doesn’t disappoint. So many previous steps have led to this moment in our narrative, they unfold like the petals of a blooming flower as the action explodes. The battle is a brilliant sequence.
We come now to a principle failing of this work. The conclusion of volume two is meant to bring a suspension at last to first contact, but the solution that achieves this was, to me, a disappointment. When it finally happens, I wondered why it hadn’t come sooner to us to approach the problem this way.
I’m obviously trying to critique here without giving anything away, so I’ll conclude with a metaphor from another saga.
I used to love trolling fans of The Lord of the Rings by saying, “Put the ring in a box. Give it to the Eagles. Tell them to drop it in the fires of Mordor. End of story in 20 minutes.” After all, the Eagles easily defeat the winged Fellbeasts of the Nazgul in the great war of Middle Earth, they’d have no problem getting by them to rid the world of the ring.
Sometimes a simple plot hole can take away the power of a saga, so you have to avoid it to go on, and to enjoy the ride.
I hate to say it, but when the final philosophical and cosmological play is made in the battle between Earth and Trisolaris – elaborate and complex as it is – I saw it coming.
I really, really want to elaborate with anyone who has read these two.
Off to read Book Three, Death’s End!