The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

I’m bad about finishing book series, even if I really enjoyed the first book. It mostly comes down to opportunity cost. There are too many great books out there, and I like variety. I’m making an exception for the Three Body Problem. This second installment was quite different from the first. The ideas are still mind-blowing, but there is a completely new set of characters. I also found the tone to be unrecognizable from the first book. This made more sense when I learned that the translator was not Ken Liu. Unfortunately, the writing in The Dark Forest was denser and also more abrupt – I’d say it’s borderline poorly written. That said, the ideas are even more amazingly thought-provoking than the ones from the first book, so I’ll do 20 bullets instead of 10.

1) “The ant continued onward to the next trough, a closed shape: ‘0.’ The path seemed like part of a ‘9,’ but it was a trap. Life needed smoothness, but it also needed direction. One could not always be returning to the point of origin.”

I loved the opening scene, which depicted a key conversation from an ant’s point of view while it crawled on a gravestone, tracing out the etched numbers and characters. It felt like the opening credits of a movie, and I’m sure it actually will be.

2) “Human communication organs are but an evolutionary deficiency, a necessary compensation for the fact that your brains can’t emit strong thought waves. This is one of your biological weaknesses. Direct display of thought is a superior, more efficient form of communication.”

On the whole, it’s got to be disadvantageous for humans to not have transparent thoughts. I liked how this “deficiency” was set up to be the only real weapon humans had against the Trisolaris race.

3) “Inequality of survival is the worst sort of inequality, and the people and countries left behind will never just sit and wait for death while others have a way out.”

I don’t want to witness how low humanity would go if we had to choose who got to escape Earth and survive. One of the more questionable plot points of the book is the enduring presence of the UN. I have no faith that an institution like that could exist if the human race were at risk.

4) “How are we supposed to know whether or not you have already started work?”

All companies should have a Wallfacer program where a select group of employees are allowed to do whatever they want and use as many resources as they claim to need without justification.

5) “Perhaps the outside world really was something akin to a quantum state, and did not exist unless he observed it.”

That’s how I feel when I go outside after staying in for a day.

6) “First, take a look at the final essay question, then start the exam from the top, so that as you work on the exam, your subconscious will be thinking over the essay question, like a background process in a computer.”

Throughout my schooling years, I purposely never read the essay question until I got to it cuz I didn’t want my mind to be distracted during the multiple choice section.

7) “‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.'” – Fitzroy

The problem is that it’s impossible to define what is impossible.

8) “‘This is the most critical decision in the entire master strategy. If it’s a misstep, the space fleet will be built atop a mistaken foundation, and we might waste a century or two.'” – Zhang Beihai

I’m starting to think that the extreme path dependency of most things in life means that very few decisions are truly reversible without impact.

9) “‘What? The number of people makes a difference? I thought all of you here were respectable gentlemen who prize human rights above all. What’s the difference between one life and 8.2 million?'” – Rey Diaz

The all-or-nothing mindset of decision making will become more unsustainable over time, especially as machines making probabilistic decisions take over.

10) “The project’s most influential component was called the Human Diary, a Web site that was set up to allow as many people as possible to record their lifetimes in the form of text and images from their everyday lives, to become part of the data of civilization. The Human Diary Web site eventually grew to have more than two billion users and formed the largest-ever body of information on the Internet.”

Facebook???

11) “‘Electricity? There’s electricity everywhere.'” – the nurse

I really hope we get there in 200 years.

12) “English, formerly the most widely used language, and Chinese, spoken by the largest population, had blended with each other without distinction to become the world’s most powerful language.”

This is a very realistic scenario. To an extent, this is already true.

13) “‘Cars all ran on the ground in your day. I can’t even imagine how dangerous that was.'” – the officer

Self driving flying cars are almost a certainty – but how will we screw it up?

14) “Despite this era’s technological development, they had still not managed to overcome the stagnation of fundamental theory, so Natural Selection’s permissions transfer was done via means Zhang Beihai was familiar with: three factor retina, fingerprint, and passphrase authentication.”

If passwords were still a thing in 200 years, I think humanity would have failed.

15) “‘Children, a man from two centuries ago is still able to teach university physics today.'” – Ding Yi

Although depressing, it’s interesting to think about what technologies will be basically the same in 200 year, and which ones will be completely irrelevant. Or even the concept of university.

16) “In the roughly two seconds it took to cover that distance, the computer actually dropped its alert from level two back to level three, concluding that the fragment wasn’t actually a physical object due to the fact that its motion was impossible under aerospace mechanics.”

The thing with alerts, and in general most of ML, is that it’s all based on what has happened. The next step change is being able to predict things that have never happened before.

17) “Exhibiting a cool and precise intelligence in its continuous attacks, it solved the traveling salesman problem in local regions with perfect accuracy, hardly ever retracing its path.”

I found this subtle reference funny, all while humanity was getting destroyed.

18) “Every day at his residence, Hines watched news that was broadcast especially for him, accompanied by lifelike three-dimensional images.”

Fake news has, is, will always exist.

19) “No, no. Don’t say where we are! Once we know where we are, then the world becomes as narrow as a map. When we don’t know, the world feels unlimited.”

Google Maps is the chaperone who saves your life by sucking all the fun out of it.

20) “He at once felt both the power and the powerlessness of time: Maybe only a thin layer of sand had been deposited over the course of two centuries, but the long geologic age when humans were not present had produced the mountain that now housed these graves.”

You can dig through the first layer of sand with your bare hands, but you can quickly get to the rocks that you can’t even drill through.

This trilogy is just on another level. The science is great, but the real meat is its commentary on humanity. We can blow up planets. We can enforce mental beliefs. We can build underground cities. But we still can’t get over which country gets to greet the aliens first, or who gets to live and who has to die. The last 5th of this book was very good and saves the book from some disappointing Murakami-copycat plot lines early on. Looking forward to finishing the trilogy.

 

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