Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest Review Round-Up
Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem was something of a surprise Hugo winner last year: a Chinese language SF novel that came out very late in the year (November), and then rapidly grabbed a Nebulas nom and a Hugo win. There are a lot of things going on in the case of The Three-Body Problem. Ken Liu translated the book, and he brought with him his Hugo/Nebula credibility (3 prior Hugo nominations, 2 wins; 8 prior Nebula nominations, 1 win). That brought eyes to The Three Body-Problem, and once people starting reading Liu’s book, they found a highly original novel ranging from Cultural Revolution to an alien invasion to a massive human computer to a ship being cut apart by microfilaments to the unfolding of an elementary particle. Three Body-Problem also benefitted from the great 2015 Hugo controversy—it was the book most acceptable to all parties, and enjoyed the support of the Rabid/Sad Puppies in beating out The Goblin Emperor.
In many ways, though, it wasn’t a fair fight. Cixin Liu is a sensation in China, and these books are considered some of the best Chinese SF of all time. It’s no surprise that the best Chinese novel of the decade is better than the American/British novels of any given year. Perhaps the Hugo is truly becoming a world SFF award, and that would certainly change the face of future nominations.
All that aside, let me state this: if Three Body-Problem could win last year, its sequel The Dark Forest could win this year. The same circumstances (and even voters) that created last year’s Hugos are still in place: could Liu be the compromise choice two years in a row?
The Dark Forest picks up where The Three Body-Problem left off. Mild spoilers follow. The Tri-solarians are on their way to Earth, and the humans now have a several hundred year period to prepare. In many ways, The Dark Forest is a more conventional novel than Three-Body, insofar as it has more of a main character and a more unified plot. Many readers will like that, although I missed the sheer exuberance of the giant set-pieces. Liu doesn’t do away with those entirely, and by the time you’ve finished The Dark Forest, you’ve seen some truly memorable SF moments, including the idea of the Wallfacers, the concept of the Dark Forest, and a murderous teardrop. I won’t say more for fear of giving away too much.
Sequels are always at a disadvantage on the awards circuit. Since not everyone has read the first novel, your potential audience is cut down. There’s also a sense of “This author just won, let’s give someone else a chance.” Liu’s biggest competition might be Ann Leckie this year, so the sequel-disadvantage is in play for both of these books. That’s why Uprooted or Seveneves has a chance to sneak in.
In terms of nominations, I think Hugo and Nebula nominations for The Dark Forest are likely. Cixin Liu was one of the most talked about SF authors last year, and more and more readers are checking out his work. More readers = more award chances, and we know that the Hugo and Nebula voters tend to be repetitive. It’s hard to fill out a 5 spot ballot; most SFF voters just don’t read 5 new novels a year.
In terms of metrics, The Dark Forest is doing pretty well. In late October, Goodreads is at 1,617 ratings and a 4.48 score. On Amazon, we’re at 116 ratings and an outstanding 4.7 score. Those score are very high, showing that those who read The Dark Forest have really liked it. That’s inflated because it’s a sequel (if you hated the first novel, why read the second?), but high scores are always better.
Cixin Liu doesn’t have much presence in English-language social media. Rather than hurting his chances, I think this might help in the charged 2015-2016 awards environment: Cixin Liu seems totally removed from the various controversies of the Hugo awards.
Not great mainstream coverage—no articles in NPR, NY Times, etc. That might be because The Dark Forest is a sequel. Liu does get a variety of pieces on why you should read him in general. For instance, The Washington Post ran an article on “Why you should be reading Liu Cixin, China’s hottest SF writer”; NPR has a similar piece on “Cultural Revolution-Meets-Aliens: Chinese Writer Takes on Sci-Fi.” Chaos Horizon is still trying to parse through how much this kind of mainstream coverage helps your Nebula/Hugo chances: it seemed to help VanderMeer win the Nebula last year. I’m less certain if it helps in the Hugos.
That’s actually pretty thin: no online review at Locus yet, no Book Smugglers review (they gave Three-Body Problem a 10 out of 10), no Strange Horizons, etc. Maybe these venues are just a little bit behind on reviewing the book—that happens often when sequels. When people know they’re going to read a book, they might wait until later in the year, or even after the Hugo/Nebula noms, to read something. In fact, I’m afraid that’s happening more and more with the Hugo packet. A reader may say, “Cixin Liu is sure to make it, I’ll just wait for my free copy.” At some point, that attitude will cost someone a Hugo nomination.
Finding WordPress reviews of The Dark Forest was surprisingly hard. It doesn’t look like a lot of my fellow WordPress bloggers have read The Dark Forest yet. The book came out in August, so it’s been a few months. Maybe this one is in the pile of “too read”–sometimes reading a sequel isn’t as pressing as reading a new book. However, if everyone takes this “wait to read it attitude,” that would hurt Liu’s chances. Readers seem to have liked the book, some more than The Three-Body Problem, some less.
Overall, I feel worse about The Dark Forest‘s chances now, after seeing how few people have reviewed his book. I’ll keep checking in to see if this picks up.
My Take: I didn’t like The Dark Forest as much as The Three-Body Problem, which was my favorite SFF novel of 2015. Maybe my expectations were too high. Don’t get me wrong, The Dark Forest is still a good novel, with some very memorable set pieces and ideas in it. It just has less going on than the first novel, and lacks the constantly frantic, over-the-top energy of Liu’s initial vision. If it makes any sense, The Dark Forest is a better novel but a worse book. It may have better characters, a smoother plot, and a more accessible feel, but it lacks the monumental vision of The Three-Body Problem. Still, I think many readers will prefer The Dark Forest to The Three-Body Problem for exactly those reasons. I’ve long since made peace with the idea that my reading tastes are eclectic. 8 out of 10.
So, will The Dark Forest make it back to back Hugo wins for Liu? Will the Nebula voters want to play catch up and give Liu the award? Will too many people put off reading the sequel?