The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

55ea1e9fa15d1-imageIt has been nearly a month since my last post. And do you know why that is? Because this book was a SLOG. It was a CHORE. I HATED it.

And I still have to* read the sequel for the Hugothon… *facedesk*.

I’m going to say this right now, I’m not keeping this post spoiler free. I have a lot of ground to cover in “why this is objectionable and also shit” and it’s going to require drawing direct explanation from the book. If you want the tl;dr and no more, stop after the bullet points.

So there are a few things which will piss me right off if they crop up in my SFF, regardless of context or execution. They’re just things I don’t think can ever be done well or with sufficient artistry/ingenuity/value for me to get over the innate “ugh no” that I experience with them. A few of these include:

  • Misogyny clearly sitting with the author/tone/authorial voice, not as a viewpoint of a character.
  • Humans following a few simple rules and thus being completely predictable by someone with sufficient Science!TM.
  • An extension of which, humanities/social sciences being suddenly magically simple because they’re being done by a sciencey scientist.
  • Humans being special because they can love.
  • Love saving the day/being the magic special thing that solves the problem.
  • Lagrange points**.

And guess what? Yep, this book does all of them. GOODY.

So the misogyny thing was the one that overwhelmed me for the majority of the first part of the book. The viewpoint character is a somewhat jaded astronomer, whose lovelife at present is casual flings whose names he can’t even remember when he wakes up. He then reveals (when one of them gets killed, spurring on some of the action, kinda) that he has only truly been in love once. An old girlfriend asked him to try to write a story for her, and in learning how to write a believable fictional character, he fell in love with his own creation, leading to a break up with his irl girlfriend and a long-lasting obsession. Things then happen, and he gains a mandate from the UN that gives him a lot of power with very little answerability as a “Wallfacer”, and he uses this to get his police/security liaison to find him a woman who perfectly fits his idea of this woman he invented. Ew.

Then we find out what she’s like: beautiful, delicate-looking, young, naive, educated but not too much so it doesn’t make her jaded, simpler than all the fussy women of her age, an artist who likes the Renaissance, who passionately cares about finding beauty, gentle… you get where I’m going with this. It’s horrible. He has her brought to work for him doing his unsupervised thing in his perfect house he’s used his power to get, then uses his power to take her on a nighttime tour of the Louvre, where they fall in love as they develop the language where people communicate only with their eyes. Cue some horrendously florid description of people falling in love.

And I’m gonna quote it for you:

The Mona Lisa was deforming. The walls were deforming, melting like ice as the Louvre collapsed, its stones turning to red-hot magma as they fell. When the magma passed over their bodies, it felt cool as a clear spring. They fell with the Louvre, passing through a melted Europe toward the center of the Earth, and when they reached it, the world around them exploded in a shower of gorgeous cosmic fireworks. Then the sparks extinguished, and in the twinkling of an eye, space became crystal clear. The stars wove crystal beams into a giant silver blanket, and the planets vibrated, emitting beautiful music. The starfield grew dense, like a surging tide. The universe contracted and collapsed, until at last everything was annihilated in the creative light of love.

Dear. God. I’ll be the first to admit I have no poetry in my soul, but this is taking the piss, it really is.

But it gets better. So they fall in love, and five years pass. They have a daughter. Then the UN gets wise to the fact that he’s not doing his important job, and instead pootling about being in happy happy love. So they decide to make him get on with it. And the best way to do this? Take the woman he loves and the child he adores, get them away in the middle of the night, and put them in cryogenic hibernation until he gets shit done.

Yep, literally fridged.

And this is frankly leaving aside that she explicitly asks him if her being with him is part of his super plan to save humanity, and he lies to her to tell her that it is, because he knows it’s the only thing that’ll keep her happy living with him. Fucking creepy.

We also have another Wallfacer (they’re all men, by the way), whose enemy trying to undermine him (Wallbreaker) turns out to be his wife. Now, this could have been really cool and important and a lot could have been done with it. But do you know what the last we hear of her is? A throwaway line by the Wallfacer that, oh yeah, she committed seppuku some time ago. No emotion. Just, oh yeah and she died.

And the whole book is like this. Women are constantly relegated to the sidelines, ignored or simply forgotten. The last third of the book is less misogynist, simply because it drops any pretence of having women in the story at all. They’re props, and the only time they’re useful is when we need someone to feel a little bit of sorrow, then we shove them back in the box. It’s horrendous. If everything else about the book was good, this would be enough for me to hate it.

But nope, there had to be more.

Love is magic, for instance. Possibly my least favourite trope of all. As I say, no poetry in my soul, and not an ounce of romance, so I am for sure not the target audience for this crap, but my god is it trite bullshit. Especially when you try to claim that humans are special because of it. There is something so contemptibly smug about this and I just can’t stand it. I suppose it fits in with my whole “can we just have some books without romance in? No?” thing and then elevates it to an art form. I’m not saying love isn’t nice and all, and the warm fuzzies are great, but it’s not… *waves hands awkwardly around face to make a point*… everything. If I had to explain why I thought humanity was so awesome… god, it wouldn’t even make the top ten. Civilisation, people, everything is so much more than this and it would make me so happy to read more stuff that just got over it. And this is a book that’s trying to be about philosophical ideals, and the deep understanding of what humanity truly is.

Which brings me neatly to my next issue: humanity boiled down to simple axioms.

It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be why I dislike the Foundation books until today, but I think it is. I really can’t get on with the idea that people can be boiled down to a few rules and then flawlessly predicted, either on an individual or a massed basis. And yet, part of the entire notion of this book is that not just humanity but the whole of galactic “sociology” can be encompassed and then built upon two axioms.

Fellow people what did an arts or humanities degree, you know that feeling when someone in STEM tries to “solve” your subject for you? Them feels.

But it’s something that runs through the whole book, and makes it feel so implausible. Leaving aside galactic “sociology” for a moment, there’s a bit where several space ships are flying away from earth and realise they can never go back. Between them, we have a crew of thousands. And yet, somehow, they all come not only to the same conclusion about their situation, their feelings on their situation and what they should do about it in roughly the same amount of time, but they all couch it in the same metaphor. People just… aren’t that samey.

And likewise, people on earth are treated as a homogenous mass that’ll all behave the same (or when we’re really lucky at one point, in one of two) ways when when faced with whatever crises. And that’s just not how people work. And once you’ve got that undercutting everything, nothing has even the whiff of realism about it, which I think the book is heavily relying on. Because for all hard SF can sometimes be a bit cold on the emotional front, it mostly manages to treat people in a way that makes them feel plausible and individual, not a bunch of automata programmed to respond the same way to stimuli. This has pushed further into that, and it feels horribly reductivist and just… yeah, unreal. It’s not a question of suspending my disbelief, it’s about creating a world that even remotely facilitates that. Because if you have to force it, if you have to keep finding issues and deliberately dismissing them time and again in order to force your immersion in the world the author is creating? That’s a real problem.

Now, I had a lot of issues with the first book, some of which I wasn’t sure if they were because of the translator, inherent to the story or a bit of both. I have to say I suspect it’s the latter, as this one has a different translator, and while some of the issues are definitely worse, they’re the same issues. The story feels incredibly dry, like the worst hard sci-fi often is, and none of the characters has any sort of human depth to them. I kept mixing up who was whom because they all sound exactly the same, they’re just mouthpieces for the author. And as such they’re all horribly didactic. You know how in not-very-good books there’s that one character that clearly exists only to give exposition? They’re all that character. And some of the stiltedness surely does come from the divide between the language of writing and the English translation, sure. But some of it must come from the story itself, I can’t blame it all on translation. Despite the mush and the floridly described love, there’s no human warmth to it at all. It’s just a list of events, sometimes described through the medium of speech, and it’s so bloody dreary. I had to push myself so hard to get through it.

And again in my review of the first book, we came upon the issue of whether there’s a fundamental difference in how Chinese literature tells stories, compared to what I’m used to. Now, further input from various sources since then has emphasised the theme of the inevitability of things, and the sense of people not being actors but merely dragged along by the inexorable current of fate. It does seem to be a Thing***. And it’s definitely present and obvious in this book. So to some extent, I’m going to have to claim that a lot of my issues with it come from a position outside the cultural context in which it is written. I’m not the target audience because on some level I just do not Get what it’s trying to do. Which is fine. But I can’t give it an entirely free pass either; I’m going to honestly critique the novel in English that I read, just with an understanding that it’s not a novel written in English, and it comes from somewhere where it is very much aiming for a thing that I’m not looking for. So instead, let’s say I’m critiquing it in its position as a Hugo nominee. And for that, I can only go in on what I enjoy, and what I can Get, and what I think is worthwhile. And I frankly don’t think this is it. There are things which bother me and which are the familiar – the misogyny, the triteness – that I can connect with and dislike, and to some extent that’s why I’ve been focussing on them rather than the language.

But the language was something that I struggled with throughout too. It’s not so much that you can tell it’s translated, just that it doesn’t flow like good English prose might. The conglomerate entity of author and translator do not have a way with words, and even go as far as rendering things in a way that was often downright clunky. It clearly tries to be poetic, and I don’t know if it achieves that in Chinese, but it’s not achieving it for me. And it lacks nuance. Part of what makes the characters feel like identical automata is the fact that none of them have any of the individuality of voice you find in real people or in most story characters. And more than that, they don’t speak like people at all. Everything is perfectly laid out, like a planned speech, with explanatory notes, in every conversation. Nothing seems spontaneous or ill-thought-out or unfinished or natural. Everything is perfect and precise. And it doesn’t read as human.

I should probably comment on the actual story at this point.

In a word, ridiculous. So many of the notions in the book – the Wallfacers, the Battle of Darkness – are just completely implausible. The idea that a near future world would decide that the best defence against an alien invasion was to give four men, one of whom basically a random pick, unquestioned power to do pretty much whatever they want to save humanity? It just… no. And then of course everything is clunkily named (though I’m guessing this is an artefact of translation). SF is supposed to be about a realistic view of the distant, the implausible and the unknowable. This just isn’t that.

But it does get better. About two thirds of the way through, we get onto just pure space battles and fate of the world stuff. We stop really paying much attention to any actual people doing things, and the story becomes a whole lot better. Which is a pretty damning indictment.

Liu can write a pleasingly horrifying unknowable enemy, and some solid space-battle imagery. Which is pretty much the only praise I have, at this point.

Thus far, I will put this down as my worst book of 2017. It was hard to read, harder to care about, and in many ways fundamentally objectionable. There’s little I can find that I would consider to redeem it, and it fails to pass a lot of my basic tests for “is this a decent novel?”. It is vastly worse than its predecessor, and for all that it gets better in the last third, that’s only because it abandons all pretense at really dealing with humans much at all. When the author just talks about his space axioms and space battles, he does ok… I think in part because it feels like this is the only thing he ever really wanted to talk about in the first place. Ok, no, that’s a lie. He clearly wants to talk about his didactic philosophising too, but that’s just obnoxious.

In short, I hated it, and the fact that I have to read the sequel is really getting up my nose.

Up next, A Closed and Common Orbit, sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, followed by The Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, and the third installment in this series, Death’s End. However, in contrast to what is mounting into a daunting and unremitting pile of NOPE, I do have the last in my Nebula Nominees to read, Borderline, by Mishell Baker, which looks genuinely fascinating, and to which I am looking forward immensely. It’s pulling me through.


*Any comments reminding me I don’t “have to” read it will be ignored. I committed to a thing, which includes the shitty parts of the thing. To complete the thing, I have to read the sequel. It’s “have to” vs my stupid pride and my stupid pride wins.
**I may be being sarcastic on this one. Maybe.
***Correction or elaboration on this point much appreciated by those in the know.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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2 Responses to The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

  1. Pingback: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers | A Reader of Else

  2. Pingback: Death’s End – Cixin Liu | A Reader of Else

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