Sunday, February 13, 2022

SciFi And Experimentation: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I like Science Fiction as a way to experiment with humanity and technology using literature. For example, in The Power, Naomi Alderman examines how our current understanding of history and gender relies on differences in physical strength by experimenting with what happens if women were to suddenly be gifted with the power to conduct electricity. Along a similar vein of inquiry, Ursula K Le Guin investigates a society without gender in The Left Hand Of Darkness. Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest's experimental design starts with the two axioms of Cosmic Sociology:

"First: Survival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant."

From here, the reader slowly learns how these two axioms provide an answer to Fermi's Paradox. And this unfolding is slow and feels meandering; I felt a little restless during the read — "enough with this imaginary girlfriend/this Starship Earth constitution/this very smooth droplet, how does humanity survive the impending alien invasion?!" 

Reflecting on the whole of the novel, however, I realize it's more a full SciFi research program than a single SciFi experiment. One experiment (the axioms of Cosmic Sociology) logically leads to two more experiments (humanity has 400 years to stave off extinction at the hands of an alien race; the impact of deceit and transparency in strategy and negotiation). One of these spin-off experiments requires development of a new Doylist tool (human cryo-hibernation), which naturally requires characterization (how do humans and society adapt and form distinct cultures around people used to completely different historical eras?). Characters — who, for better or for worse, are very much "tools" in Cixin Liu's approach to storytelling — never make decisions arbitrarily, but instead must have their own life experiences and Watsonian reasons to lead them to their decision. And this branching from one experiment into more experiments and well-calibrated tools continues, exploding into dozens of new concepts until you find yourself comparing two people gazing into each others eyes and falling in love with three military officers wordlessly planning to murder most of their society to ensure their own survival, thinking "I get it now, I understand how the axioms of Cosmic Sociology leads to the Chain of Suspicion which leads to The Dark Forest."

It's a dense, intricate book!

I didn't fully agree with the choice of each experiment. While I understand why it was important to weave love into Luo Ji's character arc (although, since it was a foil for the Benevolence versus Malevolence game theory decision-making in the Chain of Suspicion, I think it could have been more of a community love than a romance love), I found the imaginary girlfriend/UN-sponsored dating project to be almost painful to read. It was awful, incel-y representation of women and romance — the "worse" of the for better or worse ways in which characters were used as tools. There were a few side experiments that perhaps could have been cut, although they were fun: the biological and computer viruses designed to assassinate a sole target, for example. There were a few conclusions drawn that seemed more to be release for the author's own grumbles than naturally following from the rules of the world: kids these days spend too much time on screens and it impedes their ability to think logically.

Some of the writing I found off-putting. Female characters' appearances are often described at length — "enchanting silhouette", "slender hand" — where male characters are physically featureless but fiddle constantly with tobacco delivery devices. Where the prequel, The Three Body Problem, suffered from Main-Character-As-Camera syndrome, Luo Ji was afflicted with the far more irritating Chosen One/Messianic Syndrome. (This was, to some extent, lampshaded by various characters, with some discussion on the existence of/social impact of being declared a genius.)

Other parts of the writing I found puzzling. Western philosophy and cultural allusions are prominent: the Garden of Eden, the apple and the snake, The Louvre. I thought perhaps these decisions were made to make the book more palatable to a broader audience, but the translation didn't come out until seven years after the Chinese publication. This emphasis on the cultural history of the West made me wonder a little at Cixin Liu's rationale for the other three Wallfacers (an American, a Brit, and a Venezuelan).

But there were also some great scenes. I loved the exploration of the reactions of people from around the world through dialogue — the "better" of the for better or worse ways in which characters were used as tools. I loved the ant crawling around and exploring the world as Luo Ji learns about the two axioms, and later, as he digs a grave. I loved the game theory plot lines, and the exploration of optimistic versus nihilistic and goal-oriented versus people-oriented reactions in society.

Overall, The Dark Forest has some well thought-out experiments, executed a little clumsily.

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