This near-future trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from Cixin Liu, China’s most beloved science fiction author. Book two, The Dark Forest, is translated by Joel Martinsen and publishes August 11th from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below, and listen to a clip from the audiobook, out from Macmillan Audio the same day as the book! Note: this excerpt (and the following book description) contains spoilers for the first book in the series, The Three-Body Problem.
Earth is reeling from the revelation of a coming alien invasion-in just four centuries’ time. The aliens’ human collaborators may have been defeated, but the presence of the sophons, the subatomic particles that allow Trisolaris instant access to all human information, means that Earth’s defense plans are totally exposed to the enemy. Only the human mind remains a secret.
This is the motivation for the Wallfacer Project, a daring plan that grants four men enormous resources to design secret strategies, hidden through deceit and misdirection from Earth and Trisolaris alike. Three of the Wallfacers are influential statesmen and scientists, but the fourth is a total unknown. Luo Ji, an unambitious Chinese astronomer and sociologist, is baffled by his new status. All he knows is that he’s the one Wallfacer that Trisolaris wants dead.
Part One: The Wallfacers
Year 3, Crisis Era
The man had been lying on the bed for several hours. The light shining through the basement window, the room’s only source of illumination, was moonlight now, and the cool rays cast bright spots on the floor. In the shadows, everything looked like it was carved from gray stone, as if the entire room was a tomb.
No one ever knew the man’s true name, but eventually, they called him the Second Wallbreaker.
The Second Wallbreaker had spent several hours looking back on his life. After confirming that there had been no omissions, he twisted the muscles of his numb body, reached under the pillow, and drew out a gun, which he slowly aimed at his temple. Just then, a sophon text appeared before his eyes.
Don’t do that. We need you.
“Lord? Every night for a year I dreamt that you called, but the dreams went away recently. I figured I’d stopped dreaming, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now.”
This is not a dream. I am in real-time communication with you.
The Wallbreaker gave a chilly laugh. “Good. It’s over, then. There definitely aren’t any dreams on the other side.”
You require proof?
“Proof that there aren’t dreams on that side?”
Proof that it’s really me.
“Fine. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Your goldfish are dead.
“Hah! That doesn’t matter. I’m about to meet them in a place where there’s no darkness.”
You should really take a look. This morning when you were distracted, you flicked away a half-smoked cigarette and it landed in the fishbowl. The nicotine that leached into the water was fatal to your fish.
The Second Wallbreaker opened his eyes, put down his gun, and rolled out of bed, his lethargy completely wiped away. He groped for the light and then went over to look at the fishbowl on the small table. Five dragon eye goldfish were floating in the water, their white bellies at the surface, and in their midst was a half-smoked cigarette.
I’ll perform an additional confirmation. Evans once gave you an encrypted letter, but the encryption has changed. He died before he was able to notify you of the new password, and you’ve never been able to read the letter. I’ll tell you the password: CAMEL, the brand of cigarette you poisoned your fish with.
The Second Wallbreaker scrambled to retrieve his laptop, and as he waited for it to start up, tears streamed down his face. “Lord, my Lord, is it really you? Is it really you?” he choked out through his sobs. After the computer booted up, he opened the e-mail attachment in the EarthTrisolaris Organization’s proprietary dedicated reader. He entered the password into the pop-up box, and when the text was displayed he no longer had any mind to read it carefully. Throwing himself to his knees, he cried out, “Lord! It really is you, my Lord!” When he had calmed down, he raised his head and said, his eyes still wet, “We were never notified of the attack on the gathering the commander attended, or of the ambush at the Panama Canal. Why did you cast us aside?”
We were afraid of you.
“Is it because our thoughts aren’t transparent? That doesn’t matter, you know. All of the skills that you lack—deceit, trickery, disguise, and misdirection—we use in your service.”
We don’t know if that’s true. Even supposing it is true, the fear remains. Your Bible mentions an animal called the snake. If a snake crawled up to you and said it would serve you, would your fear and disgust cease?
“If it told the truth, then I would overcome my disgust and fear and accept it.”
That would be difficult.
“Of course. I know that you’ve already been bitten once by the snake. Once real-time notification became possible and you gave detailed answers to our questions, there was no reason for you to tell us quite a bit of that information, such as how you received the first signal from humanity, and how the sophons are constructed. It was hard for us to understand: We were not communicating via transparent display of thoughts, so why not be more selective in the information you sent?”
That option did exist, but it doesn’t cover up as much as you imagine it might. In fact, forms of communication do exist in our world that don’t require displays of thought, particularly in the age of technology. But transparent thought has become a cultural and social custom. This might be hard for you to understand, just like it’s hard for us to understand you.
“I can’t imagine that deceit and scheming are totally absent in your world.”
They exist, but they are far simpler than in yours. For example, in the wars on our world, opposing sides will adopt disguises, but an enemy who becomes suspicious about the disguise and inquires about it directly will usually obtain the truth.
You are equally unbelievable to us. You have a book on your bookshelf called A Story of Three Kingdoms.
“Romance of the Three Kingdoms.* You won’t understand that.”
[*Translator’s Note: A historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong (c. 1330–1400), Romance of the Three Kingdoms describes the contest between three regional powers from the waning days of the Eastern Han Dyansty (184) to the reunification of the empire under the Jin Dynasty (280). It is known for its iconic characters, battle scenes, and political intrigue.]
I understand a small part, like how an ordinary person who has a hard time understanding a mathematics monograph can make out some of it through enormous mental effort, and by giving full play to the imagination.
“Indeed, that book lays out the highest levels of human schemes and strategy.”
But our sophons can make everything in the human world transparent.
“Except for people’s own minds.”
Yes. The sophon can’t read thoughts.
“You must know about the Wallfacer Project.”
More than you do. It is about to be put into action. This is why we have come to you.
“What do you think of the project?”
The same feeling you get when you look at the snake.
“But the snake in the Bible helped humans gain knowledge. The Wallfacer Project will set up one or several mazes that will seem to you to be particularly tricky and treacherous. We can help you find your way out.”
This difference in mental transparency gives us all the more resolve to wipe out humanity. Please help us wipe out humanity, and then we will wipe you out.
“My Lord, the way you express yourself is problematic. Clearly, it’s determined by how you communicate through the display of transparent thoughts, but in our world, even if you express your true thoughts, you must do so in an appropriately euphemistic way. For example, although what you just said is in accord with the ideals of ETO, its overly direct formulation might repel some of our members and cause unanticipated consequences. Of course, it may be that you’ll never be able to learn to express yourself appropriately.”
It is precisely the expression of deformed thoughts that makes the exchange of information in human society, particularly in human literature, so much like a twisted maze. As far as I am aware, ETO is on the brink of collapse.
“That’s because you abandoned us. Those two strikes were fatal, and now, the Redemptionists have disintegrated and only the Adventists have maintained an organized existence. You’re certainly aware of this, but the most fatal blow was a psychological one. Your abandonment means that the devotion of our members to our Lord is being tested. To maintain that devotion, ETO desperately needs our Lord’s support.”
We can’t give you technology.
“That won’t be necessary, so long as you go back to transmitting information to us through the sophons.”
Naturally. But what ETO must do first is execute the critical order you just read. We issued it to Evans before his death, and he ordered you to execute it, but you never solved the encryption.
The Wallbreaker remembered the letter he had just decrypted on his computer and read it over carefully.
Simple enough to carry out, is it not?
“It’s not too difficult. But is it truly that important?”
It used to be important. Now, because of humanity’s Wallfacer Project, it is incredibly important.
The text did not show for a while.
Evans knew why, but evidently he didn’t tell anyone. He was right. This is fortunate. Now, we don’t need to tell you why.
The Wallbreaker was overjoyed. “My Lord, you have learned how to conceal! This is progress!”
Evans taught us much, but we are still at the very beginning, or in his words, only at the level of one of your five-year-old children. The order he gave you contains one of the strategies we can’t learn.
“Do you mean this stipulation: ‘To avoid attention, you must not reveal that it was done by ETO’? This… well, if the target is important, then this requirement is only natural.”
To us it is a complicated plan.
“Fine. I will take care of it in accordance with Evans’s wishes. My Lord, we will prove our devotion to you.”
In one remote corner of the vast sea of information on the Internet, there was a remote corner, and in a remote corner of that remote corner, and then in a remote corner of a remote corner of a remote corner of that remote corner—that is, in the very depths of the most remote corner of all—a virtual world came back to life.
Under the strange, chilly dawn was no pyramid, UN building, or pendulum, just a broad and hard expanse of emptiness, like a giant slab of frozen metal.
King Wen of Zhou came over the horizon. Wearing tattered robes, he carried a tarnished bronze sword, and his face was as filthy and wrinkled as the pelt he was wrapped in. But there was energy in his eyes, and his pupils reflected the rising sun.
“Is anybody here?” he shouted. “Anyone?”
King Wen’s voice was swallowed up immediately by the wilderness. He shouted for a while, and then sat wearily on the ground and accelerated the passage of time, watching the suns turn into shooting stars, and the shooting stars turn back into suns, and the suns of the Stable Eras sweep across the sky like clock pendulums, and the days and nights of the Chaotic Eras turn the world into a vast stage where the lighting was out of control. Time sped by, but nothing changed. It remained the eternal, metallic wasteland. The three stars danced in the heavens, and King Wen turned into a pillar of ice in the cold. Then a shooting star turned into a sun, and when that fiery giant disc passed overhead, the ice on his body melted and his body became a pillar of fire. Just before turning entirely to ash, he let out a long sigh, and then exited.
Excerpted from The Dark Forest © Cixin Liu, 2015