The Dark Forest, by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

Translation by Joel Martinsen. I note this because I felt that Ken Liu walked a very fine line between keeping the Chinese feel of the text in the first volume of this series, The Three-Body Problem, and rendering it in smooth English, and he did it carefully and well. While that is still true, I want to say that I think Joel Martinsen did equally good work with the same hard job. Regular readers know that I am a giant translation nerrrrrrd, so kudos Martinsen hurrah. I wrote this review before I knew that The Three-Body Problem and Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” won the only Hugos given for written fiction this year. It is a great time for works in translation to English, and I hope we see even more.

I had to steel myself to read The Dark Forest, not because I expected it to be bad, but because I did not expect it to be, well, cheerful. And it is not. Most of humanity continues to freak out at the impending aliens and at each other. (Note: you could probably pick it up without the prior volume, but I really recommend starting at the beginning.) While this installment lacks the Cultural Revolution, look, folks, he went and put “DARK” right there in the title, and he went and made up a future historical event that makes the Cultural Revolution look like a cotillion and ice cream social.

So what I’m saying is that this is a book that is more interesting than pleasant to read.

Add to that the fact that while it has tons of East Asian influences, the major Western influences are Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. That means psychohistory and alien artifacts, awesome! It also means tons of exposition, weirdly uneven pacing, and almost no women characters. And one of the largest roles a woman character plays is in and “ideal girl/dream girl” subplot, which would have been iffy enough if there were lots of interesting, full-fledged women characters. But there weren’t. There was, however, an incompetent beautiful waitress killer fembot. So hey, there’s that.

I do find it interesting where someone steeped and rooted in the Cultural Revolution–and before that, more happily, in Chinese classics–goes with their tale of humans freaking out and trying to cope–to varying degrees of success–with impending contact with an alien race. I’m very interested in where the third volume of this trilogy goes. I want to read more of this in particular, and of SF in translation from Chinese and from other languages in general. It’s just that sometimes the things that I want are a bit less fun and a bit more of a slog than I had hoped for. Well. Next book maybe.

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