The first third, perhaps half, of this book is weak, bordering on tedious. Broadcasting its movements like the overconfident failings of a twelve-year-old. Where The Three-Body Problem was a science fiction mystery, The Dark Forest rests firmly in the Action/Adventure territory. This is partly out of necessity, but if you are going to have a constant looming threat and need to prepare for it making it four hundred years away tends to take away the immediacy that the genre demands. So while urgency is attempted, it fails. Sure, there are ideas and plans hatched and thwarted, but it never really manages to land any solid and remarkable moments. The main character, such as he is, spends the first half (at least) of the book just sort of ignoring the issue and is about as developed as a potato with a degree in tubery. Still, it does take some time to indulge in small bits of philosophy and there are even some varyingly effective character moments.
But then, recognizing necessity, Cixin pushes us forward in time enough that everything old is new again. It is here the novel finally manages to shake off whatever lethargy has it by the ankles and something truly marvelous happens. The book gets good. Incredibly good. A more grown and arrogant humanity makes preliminary first contact with a Trisolaran probe. A dazzling, gut wrenching, and horrifying first contact that culminates in what is perhaps the most soul crushing thing I’ve read this year: The Battle of Darkness.
I will say nothing about it because it works best in the place it draws its name.
The rest of the book runs by quickly, its conclusion as sudden and unexpected as it needed to be. Handled any other way it would have been a conclusion written by a writer exhausted, but here, in this book, it manages to be exactly right.
In many ways, this book inverses the one that came before it. While the first ½ or 2/3 of The Dark Forest is rather rudderless if not simply weak, the last of it lands with such a concussive blast that what came before ceases to matter. It is a dark but searching tale of life on other planets and the potentially, and perhaps, necessarily horrifying nature of alien contact as well as the ripples it spawns throughout time.
“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.” – Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest