China’s ‘Dark Forest’ Answer to ‘Star Wars’ Optimism

By Jeremy Hsu | October 31, 2015 10:14 pm
Han Solo and Chewbacca in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Credit: Disney | Lucasfilm

Han Solo and Chewbacca in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Credit: Disney | Lucasfilm

Many of the most beloved science fiction films and TV shows feature humans and intelligent aliens coming together to form a larger interstellar society. The “Star Trek” stories have their United Federation of Planets, while the “Star Wars” stories feature a galaxy-spanning civilization far, far away that goes by lofty names such as “The Republic” or “The Galactic Empire.” But a Chinese science fiction trilogy coming to the big screen in 2016 takes a far darker view on how humans and other intelligent life in the universe might behave toward one another.

The “Three-Body” trilogy of books by Liu Cixin represents China’s best-selling foray into traditionally Western-dominated science fiction. An English translation of the first book earned Liu “best novel” for science fiction or fantasy in the 2015 Hugo Awards and landed on the reading list of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Chinese filmmakers have already scheduled the first “Three-Body” film for debut in July 2016. But don’t expect humans and aliens to be rubbing shoulders in a shared space adventure similar to the recent “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” films.

“There’s a strange contradiction revealed by the naivete and kindness demonstrated by humanity when faced with the universe: On Earth, humankind can step onto another continent, and without a thought, destroy the kindred civilizations found there through warfare and disease,” Liu writes in a postscript for the U.S. edition of “The Three-Body Problem.” “But when they gaze up at the stars, they turn sentimental and believe that if extraterrestrial intelligences exist, they must be civilizations bound by universal, noble, moral constraints, as if cherishing and loving different forms of life are parts of a self-evident universal code of conduct.”

(MAJOR SPOILERS for “The Three-Body Problem” and “The Dark Forest” will follow in this post. If you haven’t read at least the first two books in the “Three-Body” trilogy and wish to check them out for yourself, stop here.)

The Optimism of Galactic Civilizations

Liu’s observation highlights a certain amount of optimism built into both the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” universes. The “Star Trek” universe envisions a noble code of conduct in the Federation’s Prime Directive; a guiding rule that explicitly prevents the Federation’s Starfleet from interfering with the development of more primitive alien civilizations or lording over them with superior technology. Such a rule puts Starfleet in the role of benevolent, distant guardians for many fledgling alien civilizations and enables them to safely develop until they can potentially join the Federation’s interstellar organization.

None of the “Star Wars” films explicitly suggest a similar “universal code of conduct” that prevents one powerful human or alien civilization from wiping out all the others. But the very existence of a huge galactic civilization consisting of both humans and aliens—many possessing advanced technologies such as hyperdrives and starships—implies that advanced human and alien societies were able to coexist, engage in economic trade and perhaps share the fruits of technological progress sometime in the past.

By comparison, Liu’s “Three-Body” trilogy considers the often troubled chapters of human history and imagines a similar scenario playing out amongst the stars. His vision becomes clear in the trilogy’s second book, “The Dark Forest,” which takes its title from the analogy used to describe the state of the universe. It also represents a dark answer to the Fermi paradox, first proposed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, which asks why humans haven’t seen evidence of intelligent aliens if the probability of their existence is high.

Credit: TOR Books

Credit: TOR Books

The Dark Forest

Liu’s “dark forest” theory goes something like this. First, it proposes that each civilization’s main motivation is to survive. Second, it suggests civilization will continuously grow and expand even as all matter in the universe remains constant. That means each civilization has to compete with other civilizations for a limited amount of resources as it expands beyond its home planet.

But what about the possibility of two civilizations agreeing on peaceful cooperation? The main problem with that comes from what one of Liu’s characters describes as the “chain of suspicion.” If one civilization receives a message about the existence and possibly the location of another civilization, it must determine whether the other civilization has good or bad intentions.

Liu also imagines communication and trust issues arising because of the vast physical distances between each civilization and the likelihood of having very different biological and societal backgrounds. It’s a high-stakes decision because the wrong choice could lead to a civilization’s destruction at the hands of another.

An additional complication comes from the possibility of a weaker civilization suddenly becoming much more powerful technologically because of “technological leaps” that occur in a relatively short time. In that sense, a stronger civilization would have to always consider a weaker civilization as a potential ticking time bomb.

Hunger Games in Space

The resulting vision in “The Dark Forest” is a universe filled with intelligent life that keeps quiet to avoid possible destruction at the hands of a technologically superior civilization. Liu describes each civilization as a stalking hunter in a dark forest. To make a broader comparison with the dystopian stories of “The Hunger Games” trilogy, it’s like each civilization is a human tribute struggling to survive in a huge arena filled with other armed tributes.

Except it’s actually much worse than the “Hunger Games” scenario, because the chance of agreeing to become even temporary allies becomes very unlikely due to the communication and trust issues. And the possibility of technological leaps means a seemingly weak tribute with no weapons might suddenly evolve into a fully-armed tribute shooting at you with a bow and quiver full of arrows.

Katniss Everdeen in the film "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

Katniss Everdeen in the film “The Hunger Games.” Credit: Lionsgate Entertainment

Such a cynical view of life in the universe isn’t necessarily unusual among both science fiction storytellers and scientists. Many researchers—including physicist Stephen Hawking—have warned about the possible dangers from hostile extraterrestrial civilizations. In that spirit, some have argued strongly against the idea of Earth trying to send active signals to extraterrestrial civilizations.

Science Fiction Rooted in History

But Liu’s grim, cynical vision may also have special resonance among his Chinese fans who read his books and anticipate the upcoming film adaptations. That’s because Liu’s science fiction trilogy references the societal trauma inflicted by China’s Cultural Revolution, a turbulent period during the 1960s and 1970s when the government encouraged widespread persecution of “class enemies” such as the educated class.

Many young Chinese at the time joined the paramilitary Red Guards who carried out such persecution; sometimes they tortured or even killed those designated as class enemies. At times, husbands and wives publicly denounced their spouses; in other cases children accused their parents. Such societal upheaval destroyed or irrevocably changed many community and family bonds of trust.

Liu cites hazy childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution as part of the influence on his science fiction, even as he cautioned that he does not use his stories as a “disguised way to criticize the reality of the present.” In any case, he advocates for a cautious approach to making first contact with alien civilizations in his “The Three-Body Problem” postscript:

Let’s turn the kindness we show toward the stars to members of the human race on Earth and build up the trust and understanding between the different peoples and civilizations that make up humanity. But for the universe outside the solar system, we should be ever vigilant, and be ready to attribute the worst of intentions to any Others that might exist in space. For a fragile civilization like ours, this is without a doubt the most responsible path.

  • RSFan

    I’m a little confused… it says it is a trilogy. does the Dark Forest book contain all 3 novels? or are there 2 other novels?

    • Jeremy Hsu

      Hey, belated thanks for the question. “The Dark Forest” is the second book in a trilogy known as the “Three-Body” trilogy. The first book is also called “The Three-Body Problem.”

  • Al Franken

    This concept is hardly new. I’ve read many SF books that tell of competing aliens. How about Independence Day as a movie about such things. I think that if light speed is a true limit and there is no hyperdrive, the whole scenario falls apart.

    • ericlipps

      Not necessarily.
      Imagine a xenophobic civilization which fears the possibility that someday aliens might attack it. Such a civilization might send out self-replicating probes designed to identify technological civilizations not yet advanced enough to do the same, equipped with the means to wipe out such civilizations (steering a nice big asteroid to hit their planet would do it) and programmed to do so to wipe out the competition in advance.

      Of course, if such a program of destruction came to the attention of a civilization equal to or more powerful than the world-killers, it could bring about the very attack they feared. They might, however, decide the risk was worth it.

      • Al Franken

        Fred Saberhagen had the Berserker series which was close to what you describe. Also google von Neumann machines which are also what you describe.

  • nik

    Its probably far more realistic a scenario, than Star Wars.

  • ericlipps

    Many researchers—including physicist Stephen Hawking—have warned about the possible dangers from hostile extraterrestrial civilizations. In that spirit, some have argued strongly against the idea of Earth trying to send active signals to extraterrestrial civilizations.

    It’s too late. Even if we don’t send active signals, by now any aliens within 80 or so light-years of us should be able to pick up our radio signals from the 1930s. They may even be able to tell where we are.
    If they can’t reach us because interstellar travel is too difficult, there’s no problem. But if they can, we have to hope that either they refuse to or they’re benign, because otherwise we’re screwed.

    • plasticvicar

      But you ignore the second part of the Dark Forest Theory, that civilizations can massively advance in a very short amount of time in technological leaps, kinda like the one we are currently going through.

      Think about the last 10,000 years of human civilization, a tremendous amount of technology was only developed in the last hundred years.

      An alien fleet may be heading to us right now but unless they can travel faster than light, our technology couldve surpassed them in the hundreds of years it would take for them to get here, giving us a fighting chance.

      The universe may be a dark forest where shining a light could get you killed, but interstellar distances gives us the time to learn from our mistakes and get ready before its too late.

      • jixiang

        Unless some civilizations have found ways to travel faster than the speed of light.

        • Jon Wax

          If they have stellar travel, they probably switched from organic to mecha generations ago.

          • jixiang

            What does mecha mean?

          • Jon Wax

            mechanical species. keep the brains, lose the bones meat and blood

    • James Denier

      Actually, since the intensity of an electromagnetic wave is inversely proportional to the square of the distance (one over R squared), not even our strongest signals could be observed as near as Pluto.

      Earth is also going dark, as the use of fiber optics replaces broad bandwidth EM waves for communication.

      Right now the only way we could detect Earth, even inside our solar system, is to look at spectroscopic atmospheric anomalies.

  • Gil Knutson

    Old news. Read, “Von Neumann’s War” by John Ringo and jTravis S. Taylor.from 2006…

  • Gil Knutson

    And, there were many Sci-Fi stories of similar topic over the last 50 years that I have read.

  • Tala

    I always like to see sci fi from other cultures. I like seeing how the rest of the world envisions the future, because most sci fi does not really include the rest of the world.

  • Juntian Si

    “Losing humanity, we’ll lose a lot. Losing animal instinct, we’ll lose everything.”—— Cixin Liu

  • Echo of Valandhir

    That theory Liu presents here, while basically compelling, makes the same mistake as those who expect alien civilisations to be more morally evolved – both assume that those aliens are like us, following our logic and reaction patterns. We cannot even predict what resources we would compete for, what their key resources are, but the book assumes it can only be competition.

    In a way it is weird that the whole sci fi community is split between “friendly aliens” or “destructive aliens”, with almost no middle ground. The question whether we will even be able to understand those aliens, not just language wise, but logic-wise is rarely considered.

    While I like the “Three body problem”, it holds some rather big logic gaps. It assumes that the Trisolarians are able to decode the entire chines language just from the one message they got. The return message contains words like “pacifist” which actually require the understanding of an entire philosophical concept behind it (and the question whether or not such a concept ever existed in their society) it is all but impossible that so much was deciphered from one single message, even if we suspend disbelief to accept that they were able to decode the message entirely.

    And therein lies the problem of the book – it assumes that social and philosophical concepts on both worlds are fairly similar, and can be translated forth and back easily. Which is questionable at best.

    • Jon Wax

      Origin of the species aside, I think Xenomorphs are about as close as we can conceive of and even those are bipedal and symmetrical, still too much like humans.

      It’ll be bugs, sentient cockroaches or something similar.

      So then you remove morality and go back to an organism that simply survives and proliferates if it can.

      To assume anything more then ant like behavior is dreaming…

    • Ceci Pipe

      How is your first point a rebuttal? Aliens aren’t necessarily like us? That’s half the basis of the Dark Forest Hypothesis right there. Vast distances, different languages and cultures, may not even be carbon based life forms, so why would we be able to peacefully communicate with them? It’s extraordinarily unlikely, and if we can’t communicate then both species could operate on a worst case scenario, yes?

      As for the decoding, you must have forgotten. Most of the message contained a translation/dictionary chunk, with the rest having the message itself. From memory they also sent more than one message, but not certain on that particular point. There was definitely a translation program though.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


See More

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar