Thursday, 12 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Cyberpositive Disruption

Spoilers, obviously


Blade Runner 2049 is as good as they say it is. If you've not seen it, go see it, immediately, and don't read further until you have.

This is going to be less a review than a series of meditations on the themes in the film, along with some some broader comments.

Let's get the plot out the way. K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, and a replicant. The newer models, no longer curtailed by the four-year life span of the Nexus 6 (it was never clearly established if that life span was deliberate or not), have been integrated into society, with deeply programmed obedience. He hunts the old models, less advanced than he, more advanced than the Nexus 6. The opening scene will be familiar to anyone who's seen Dangerous Days; he's tracked an old model replicant to a protein farm in the bleak wilds of California, nested among the solar energy plants. He retires the replicant, and discovers the bones of a female replicant who, impossibly, died in child birth. 

Replicants are now produced by the Wallace Coporation; Tyrell is bankrupt. Wallace's pyramid looms over the Tyrell pyramids. Unlike those, which blazed with light in the original, the Wallace pyramid is dark, monolithic, its surface unbroken by windows -- Wallace (Jared Leto) is blind, after all. Frustrated at the slow pace of replicant production, Wallace desires the replicant-child for himself, so as to grant replicants the ability to reproduce among themselves -- auto-production of the bio-engineered slave caste. His reasoning is pure humanist triumphalism, that with an inexhaustible and perfectly obedient slave force at their disposal, humanity might storm the heavens and reclaim Eden. Religious symbolism afoot, dense with Cosmism.

Apparently unbeknown to Wallace, a revolutionary movement among the replicants in fact already posses the child, and shall use her (it is implied for much of the film that K is the replicant-child, but it's revealed that this isn't the case) to raise the consciousness of the replicants into open rebellion -- replicant auto-production transformed into self-determined emancipation -- 'More human than human' indeed.

There's a lot for fans of the original film to enjoy. The references to the original are handled gracefully, respectfully. BR2049 is the logical consequence of what we see in the first film: environmental degradation, militarised policing, collapse of the state/capital distinction, mega-architecture, mass demographic blending, street-level commodity biotech, etc., etc. When it comes to the tech, the advances are in line with the aesthetics of the original (especially the photo analysis scene and the Voight-Kampff test) -- cyberpunk rendered analogue. A data reader has levers, gears; it whirrs and clunks. Lenses audibly flitter. This is justified by an almost-total digital data loss between '19 and '49 (the Blackout), a perfect narrative conceit -- the recent, digitised past is not only another country, it's a lost continent, informational Lemuria. Data has reverted to physicality. 

But this isn't our future, not our 2049. It's the future of the 2019 we saw in the original. It's a future where the early 21st century established off-world colonies; a holographic ballerina is circled by a ring of text, 'Product of CCCP'. Alternative futurism.

Nick Land's 1993 essay 'Machinic Desire' gazes deeply into the eyes of the original replicants and the security apparatus seeking them out.

PODS = Politically Organized Defensive Systems [...] The global human security allergy to cyberrevolution consolidates itself in the New World Order, or consummate macropod, inheriting all the resources of repression as concrete collective history. The macropod has one law: the outside must pass by way of the inside. In particular, fusion with the matrix and deletion of the human security system must be subjectivized, personalized, and restored to the macropod's individuated reproducer units as a desire to fuck the mother and kill the father. [p. 320]

The replicants are a threat to the human security system in that they've not been installed with Oedipal control software. They are '[d]eadly orphans from beyond reproduction' [p. 319] that do not pass by way of the inside. Their desires are alien, artificial, products of capital machinery rather than the 'natural' biological processes of reproduction and the transference of social norms and mores -- Oedipal control software. BR2049 takes this and runs with it -- replicant social integration is accomplished by the open implantation of synthetic memory, countering the empathy deficiency that made the Nexus 6 models so volatile.

Land's macropod is a cybernetic negative feedback loop which always reverts to zero -- equilibrium -- homeostasis -- base-line. When K returns from a mission, he is put through a slicked down and hyper-efficient version of the Voight-Kampff test to ensure his emotional state has returned to base-line, i.e. he has been reset to zero, and is thus 'stable'. The macropod relies on negative feedback functions, in that negative feedback maintains the social order, keeps the system in balance, preserves law, order, hierarchy, etc. K's boss instructs him that replicant auto-production is unacceptable; it crumbles the walls, hierarchies, repressive mechanisms that maintain macropod homeostasis.

The integration of the replicants into the macropod is predicated on the macropod still maintaining homeostasis -- replicant auto-production jeopardises this. By gaining the ability to self-direct their reproduction, the replicants seek to jettison themselves from the macropod in a blaze of positive feedback: shattering pre-existing social structures, obliterating the human security system and launching themselves into inhuman sexuality.

'Machinic processes are either cyberpositive-nomadic, with a deterritorializing outcome, or cybernegative-sedentary, with a reterritorializing outcome.' [p. 330] Replicant auto-production still runs the risk of being utilised by the macropod (Wallace's dream of storming the heavens) for the continuation/perpetuation of the prior order; if allowed to spin out of control, however, replicant auto-production would do the opposite of this, a hundred replicant flowers blooming in a creative chaos of runaway processes.

The great question at the heart of the original: is Deckard a replicant? We are not given an answer in BR2049, wisely. It is left ambiguous if the replicant-pregnancy (it was Rachael that fell pregnant with Deckard's child) was human/replicant or replicant/replicant, if it was pure replicant self-production, or the illicit transfer of human genetic material into an inhuman receptor. Either way, the macropod's security algorithms are thrown out of whack, perhaps permanently.

Artificial life finds a way.


Thursday, 21 September 2017

Thoughts on 'mother!' (2017)

Spoilers ahead

I've not seen much of Aronofsky's work. Black Swan is a film I've never felt a need to watch again; same goes for The Fountain. If I were to rewatch Noah, it'd likely just be for the endless, burnt, grey landscapes. I generally find his films to be too on the nose, convinced of their profundity when that's actually lacking. As such, I wasn't expecting to like mother!, but to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

This isn't to say that it's not on the nose -- the allegory and s y m b o l i s m is so obvious in places that all I could do was grin ruefully. 'Oh Darren, you think you're being subtle, don't you?'

Javier Badem plays Him (he's the only character in the credits to have his name capitalised, by the way...), a poet whose home was recently destroyed in a fire. The fire has left him with writer's block, and he hasn't written a word since. His wife, the eponymous mother (Jennifer Lawrence), has rebuilt their home, and is trying to make it a paradise for the two of them. 

I say that she's rebuilt the home, but from the opening shot we know that all is not what it seems. The film begins with Jennifer Lawrence looking veritably demonic, wreathed in flame and staring down the camera (I knew going in to expect symbolism from Genesis, and for a while I was wondering if she was intended to be Lilith). We then see Him placing a crystal onto a stand in the burnt remains of his study. With that, the room is transformed from a burnt husk to how it was before. We see the house renewing itself, and mother herself coming to be in their bed.

Their solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a man (Ed Harris), who inexplicably claims that he was looking for a B and B. Him welcomes the man in and, much to mother's consternation, insists he stay. Later, the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives. Her and mother's interactions are fraught with tension and passive aggression. The couple incur the wrath of Him when they sneak into his study (where visitors are forbidden without him), and accidentally break the crystal ornament. They are visibly contrite, though in a very childlike way, their faces turned downwards. Him then seals the study so no one can get in. Still later, the couple's sons arrive, the eldest angrily contesting their father's will, and in a fit of rage accidentally kills his younger brother. Him tries to separate them, and throws the elder son into a shelf, leaving his forehead cut.

Now, so far the symbolism is relatively obvious. The poet is God, mother is pre-and non- human creation (henceforth I'm going to call this 'earth'), the boorish and uncouth couple are Adam and Eve, entering the study and breaking the crystal is the Fall, their sons are Cain and Abel, and so on, and so on. There's even a moment where Michelle Pfeiffer is seen wearing a leaf-green bra, an obvious visual reference to depictions of the original couple wearing conveniently placed flora. The spot where the younger son died, where his blood stained the floor, is returned to repeatedly, the stain refusing to ever leave, and only growing thicker as the film progresses (the lingering of sin). However, as the film progresses, a straight point-by-point comparison with Biblical imagery becomes difficult.

For a start, and I may be latching onto a minor plot point here, the man is revealed to be dying when he arrives at the house. Furthermore, he is also revealed to be a fan of the poet, who had lied about how he'd ended up there in the first place. He wanted to meet Him before he died. What is interesting here is that, traditionally, it is held that death did not exist before the Fall from Eden, but the man is closing in on death before he violates the study. But maybe all Aronofsky wanted to do here was emphasise the importance of the poet's work, how deeply it matters to people, and to acknowledge the desire to know the creator.

Over the course of the film, the poet welcomes more and more people into their home, to mother's growing distress, especially after she falls pregnant. The people do not respect the rules of the house, they damage it thoughtlessly, curse at her, etc. When she become pregnant, this inspires the poet to write again, and over what seems to be many months as mother is close to giving birth when he finishes, he completes a new work. It is published immediately (literally, within moment of mother having read it), and sells out on the first day of publication. Mother prepares a dinner for the two of them, only for the house to once again become swamped, this time with adoring fans. This, it seems to me, is the delivery of Scripture to humanity. The poet says at one point something along the lines of 'Everyone understands it, but they all understand it differently'. 

As the house overflows with acolytes, the poet blesses them with ashes, and they start to share this blessing among themselves. Shrines to his image appear, ecstatic ritual is initiated, and a dark spiral into disturbing violence begins. His publisher, credited as the herald (Kristen Wiig), is seen shooting bound fans with bags over their heads point blank. A bizarre cage full of women has been set up in one of the rooms. The violence intensifies, with armed police arriving carrying assault weapons, seemingly to protect mother. When she goes into labour, the poet grabs her and carries her to safety. After she gives birth, the house is quiet, and the people bring them meagre gifts.

This is a moment where the imagery becomes complicated. The child is, obviously, a representation of the Christ (the arrival of gifts, the inexplicable hush that descends upon the house, etc.) -- but who, then, is mother? Mary, clearly, but previously she is indicated to represent earth, all those things wrought by God which humanity uses up, disrespects, and destroys. But, she then delivers the Christ-child. I don't know my Mariology enough to explain how this might work -- maybe she represents fecundity-as-such, with the poet representing the impulse to create through this.

The poet wants to show the child to the people, but mother refuses, holds the baby boy close to her breast, and it's only when she can no longer stay awake that the poet is able to take the child. He presents it to the people, who carry it above their heads and, within moments, kill it. Mother desperately tries to save the child, but is too late, and to her horror, sees that the people are ritually eating it, leaving the remains on an altar, and reciting the poets words from earlier in the film as they do so. 

Again, the imagery here is extremely obvious, the eucharistic consumption of Christ's flesh and blood. What is interesting here is that Aronofsky injects this with a haunting and violent primitiveness. Christianity is a religion overflowing with brutal, violent, bloody imagery, a religion whose chief symbol is a man being publicly tortured to death, whose central ritual is theophagy, the eating and drinking of God. By representing this in its totemic rawness, Aronofsky calls us to consider the darkness inherent to Christian religion -- when I say 'darkness' I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, but rather to emphasise that Christianity is a religion born out of a murder, and which symbolically recalls that murder every day in the Mass. To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, this isn't 'lemon squash Christianity'.

But here is where things get really interesting -- when she sees what has happened to her son, mother picks up a piece of glass and attacks the people with it. They respond by calling her a whore, and they start kicking and punching her. The poet rescues her, but she breaks away and escapes to the cellar of the house, breaks open the oil tank there, and, despite his pleas not to, ignites it. The house, the people, the countryside around them, are all engulfed in flame. Only mother and the poet are left, though mother is horrifically burnt and the poet untouched. The poet carries her back up to the remains of his study. They talk, and she tells him that she doesn't understand why she wasn't enough for him. He tells her that nothing is ever enough, for if there were enough, there would be no creation. He cannot help himself, he is a creator. He asks her for the love that remains for him, and she grants this to him. He reaches into her chest, and pulls out her heart. She dies as the heart crystallises. He sets the crystal onto the stand, and the cycle repeats.

The ending is fascinating because it breaks from the Abrahamic narrative in two ways. Firstly, creation is depicted cyclically, which goes against the linear understanding of time one finds in the Abrahamic religions, and secondarily, we see creation rejecting the creator. Earth, tortured by that which is not it, humanity, rejects the will of the maker, and burns up his apparently favoured creatures. Throughout, the poet consistently indulges, cares for, comforts the people who arrive at the house, and mother simply cannot understand what he could possibly see in them. After the death of the child, he even tells her that they must try to forgive them -- and she refuses, and destroys them instead. 

The poet's consistent indulging of the people goes hand-in-hand with what seems to be a deep narcissism on his part, his refusal to turn away or condemn his adoring fans. But maybe, rather than narcissism, this is instead his recognition that, like it or not, humanity does adore him, and does act in what they take to be according to his will. He cannot bring himself to reject their love, or refuse them his, even at the cost of the earth and the Christ-child. There is a certain sadness or resignation on his part that he cannot help but create. The creator is as much a slave to his nature as the creature.

Friday, 1 September 2017

WAREWOLFF! by Gary J Shipley -- Book Launch

I happen to be friends with the people at Hexus Press.

Hexus Press, if you don't know, is a small publisher of avant-garde, literary horror. They've previously released two anthologies of short fiction, which contain some extremely impressive and disquieting work (Hexus II contains a story by my pal Lucy Brady).

Gary J Shipley has some short, nasty, cruel, brilliant work in Hexus I. Being rather thrilled with them, I looked up Shipley and bought one of his novels, Dreams of Amputation, which is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant books I've ever read.

So, naturally, I was delighted to learn that Hexus Press were publishing his new novel, WAREWOLFF!. And, last night, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch.

What can I say about Shipley? Reportedly, he's a perfectly affable chap in real life (an academic philosopher, no less). It's difficult to correlate that with the work he's produced. Dreams is a cyberpunk nightmare, the fun of the endless neon night such fiction tends to promise distinctly absent. It presents the future of the Anthropocene as one where the most despicable of desires finds technological expression (there's a disturbingly memorable scene in a harem of artificial, chimeric concubines). In Dreams, Shipley presents a world where celebrity is something easy to come by, if one equates it with fetishising being watched, with being on the other side of the voyeur's lens.

*

The launch place in a pleasant little book shop in Haggerston, with the unlikely name 'Burley Fisher Books'. One of the lovely people at Hexus had sent me on a mission to find a woodblock for the performance, which had proven to be far more difficult a task than it had any right to be, so I'd arrived early with it. After some chatting, and helping them set-up, I took myself off to a bar down the road as they did their final sound checks (I wasn't allowed to attend, so as to preserve the mystery surrounding the performance that was to come). The bar was sharply minimal, the only seating indoors being a cushioned bench that ran along the wall opposite the bar. Table service was welcome, and I settled in to have a drink and do some research.

The aforementioned Lucy turned up, and we had a few drinks as we waited for the performance to start. When the time came, we filed down into the basement theatre under the book shop. Virtually everyone, including myself, was dressed in black. 

One of the guys from Hexus read a short speech, introducing the evening's events. In a nod to the original Dadaists, (vegetarian) sausages, beer, and sauerkraut were to be served afterwards. He said he suspects that Cabaret Voltaire would not have approved. He also thoughtfully included a trigger warning for 'literally everything'.

There were four people on the stage; two reading from the novel, another reading from it and working the synths and other instruments, and the fourth be assisting with the synths, etc. 

The performance began with the clunk of a woodblock. 

Shipley's words were cast over us, with the synths growling, initially quietly, underneath. The speakers took it in turns, beginning each vignette from the text with a thwack on a woodblock. The language and imagery was everything I expected it to be -- vicious, grotesque, transgressive, obscene, and darkly comic (assuming your sense of humour is as strangely calibrated as mine). As the performance went on, the vignettes became more graphic, the noise from the synths became more violent, though the tone from the speakers was, if anything, ever-more Radio 4. 

The wall of sound increased, almost to an uncomfortable level. The lights flickered during a particularly lurid piece likening Palestine to... well, that would be telling. 

Someone towards the back laughed throughout. 

About 45 minutes later, the performance terminated. The apprehension someone at Hexus had felt that, maybe, the content was going just a little too far, and a Twitter hate-mob would manifest in our presence, appeared unfounded, at least for now. The atmosphere was genuinely convivial. Sausages were had (I had mine mustard). I bough a copy of WAREWOLFF!. 

Shipley was nowhere to be seen. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Podcasts

First of all, I sold my first ever story recently. It went to Pseudopod, a horror podcast. You can listen to it here. (And before anyone says anything, yes, I know, I should have sent them a better picture.)

Secondly, a friend and I have started our own podcast! It will be an ultimately pretty irreverent exploration of conspiracy lore, trying to sift the occasional nugget of truth out of nonsense and baseless rumour. This being said, we're trying to keep it as fact-orientated as possible, and we are doing research, so you should be able to get something out of it.

We're called Deep Status. Episode one is on Steve Bannon, Julius Evola, the Fourth Turning and Mencius Moldbug...

That's all for now!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher

By now, everyone's heard that Mark Fisher has died.

On Saturday, I sat down in the afternoon to start The Weird and the Eerie, but just before I did so I (habitually) checked Facebook, only to learn that his death had just been announced. There was something extremely disquieting about that, a cruel irony that his latest book became his last just as I was about to begin.

I didn't know him, I had never met him, and I'd only become aware of his work in 2015. I didn't read K-Punk back when it was the hub of incandescent blogging it was the in the 2000s. I still haven't even finished Ghosts of My Life, for the single reason that Fisher's knowledge of popular (and unpopular) culture was so much vaster than mine that every page would introduce me to another band I hadn't heard, a film I hadn't seen, a TV show I'd not watched, and a book I'd not read. What I did read, his essays on Joy Division and Burial in particular, was extraordinary. Elegant, readable, blisteringly intelligent and full of vision.

As such, I don't presume to write an obituary. I'm just going to review a cool book by a cool guy, who I wish I'd known.


*

In this short and efficient primer, Fisher takes us on a tour of the different manifestations of the weird and the eerie. These are aesthetic experiences most often associated with the horror genre, but Fisher shows us that horror has no monopoly over either. 

The book is split into two halves, one for each of the topics. The chapters, all short, come as a pleasing staccato as one reads. None hang around for long, the weirdness or eeriness of their subject being quickly (though not hastily) drawn out, followed by a leap to the next. Fisher rarely spends more than a few pages on any single book or film or album. Instead, he seems to have wanted to equip the reader which as much material as possible for their own research, not wanting to exhaust any particular vein of the weird or the eerie. Instead, he acts here more like a surveyor, producing a map that he wants us to make use of, and explore more thoroughly.

Thus, the book feels more like a prolegomenon to future works on the weird and the eerie. Indeed, Fisher begins by acknowledging his neglect of these topics. One gets the impression he wanted to get the groundwork out the way, so the real task could begin.

The definitions Fisher gives us are as follows: by weird, we designate 'that which does not belong' [p. 10]. The hybrid, the alien, the ancient, all these are potential sources of the weird. It is typically shocking, even terrifying. The weird 'exceeds our capacity to represent' [p. 61], it is overwhelming. By eerie, we designate 'a failure of absence or... a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing, or there is nothing present when there should be something.' [Ibid.] The eerie, which is less typically shocking, is born out of something less overt than the weird. The eerie operates more by suggestion, by what is left unsaid. The weird has a note of grotesqueness, while the eerie has a note of lack. But I can't do justice to his definitions, they only come to light when we follow him through the examples he gives.

What is perhaps most striking in this book is the multiplicity of examples he uses to demonstrate the variant workings of weirdness and eeriness. The usual suspects are there (the weird as presented by H. P. Lovecraft, the eerie as presented by M. R. James), but there are many others who one would not approach in these terms: H.G. Wells' story The Door in the Wall is found to possess weird elements, as does the discography of The Fall, while eeriness is found in Nolan's Interstellar and John Glazer's Under the Skin.

What Fisher succeeds in doing is showing us that weirdness and eeriness are experiences that can, and do, occur in utterly unexpected ways, and in unexpected places. Nor must they always be horrifying, as both hint towards the possibility of radical alterity, to the idea that things are neither always what they seem, or fixed as they are right now. The unknown is not always unwelcome.

If you'd like to help support Mark Fisher's wife and son, you can do so with a donation here.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Auralux

*In the interests of readability, I've upped the font-size from 'invisible' to 'whoa'.*

Auralux is a mobile strategy game. I was introduced to it the recently. It's a very simple game, the only controls being scroll, zoom, and select. 

The player is confronted with a system of stars (planets in the second game), surrounded by points of energy. The stars generate these points of energy every second; the larger the star, the more energy points they produce. You use the energy points to upgrade your stars, defend them, and attack your opponents stars with. The aim isn't conquest, it's annihilation. You don't need to claim every star, you just have to be the last player standing. This is a game that prioritises annihilation over conquest. 

Of course, in order to be in a position to defend oneself, and to attack, you need to conquer territory first. Annihilation is something to be prepared for, once sufficient resources have been gathered. Although turtling is theoretically possible, it's difficult to make it work as the game rewards swiftness. Take too long to build up your defences, the opponents (never fewer than two) will claim enough territory for them to easily overcome one another, and then you. The game rewards decisiveness, but punishes stupidity. Over-reach your abilities, you'll be unable to hold onto territory and will have to retreat, a step that almost inevitably results in defeat. Strike too soon, you'll find you haven't the forces to knock either opponent out, and in the time it takes you to reinforce your numbers, you've fallen behind the race for territory. 

None of this is especially unique, one can apply all of this any RTS game. What is striking about Auralux is how stripped back it is, how minimalist it is. There is nothing of the baroque or excessive to it at all, just shapes, colours, and sounds. It's as if Kraftwerk designed it. Although it wouldn't be strictly accurate to call it a highly abstract 4X game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) as there is no element of exploration, the other three Xs are present. You must expand your territory, exploit it, and exterminate the enemy. There is something very bloodless about it. Despite the focus on annihilation, the absence of anything overtly military or imperialist in its aesthetic leaves us just with the mechanics of a 4X strategy game, without anything that's directly suggestive of death.

The abstraction and minimalism is, of course, what makes it attractive. Cold, clean, bloodless, with 'spacey' ambient music as a soundtrack. When different clusters of energy attack one another, there is just a flash of light and a pleasant tinkling sound as they destroy each other, complementing the music. 

As it so happens, I was about halfway through The Dark Forest when I was introduced to this game. The emphasis the novel has on abstracting about possible interactions between cosmic civilisations, and the cold, precise elegance of the prose, very much chimes with the game. 

Auralux is the kind of game appropriate for the age of drones and cyber-warfare, for body counts, computer aided grand strategy, and the digitisation of combat. War as a game where you no longer need to break a sweat.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

*Spoilers*


The Dark Forest is in that great tradition of speculative fiction that deals with ideas and concepts over everything else. Make no mistake, this is hard SF, by thankfully Liu is a masterful storyteller, and the many long digressions on (among other things) axiomatic cosmic sociology, space propulsion, asymmetric warfare, and the impact of nuclear proliferation on geopolitics from the perspective of small countries, are all engrossing.

The story picks up where The Three-Body Problem left of, though only with a smattering of return characters. The focus is on Luo Ji, a failed academic (specialising in astronomy, moonlighting as a sociologist), who at the beginning of the novel is given the foundational axioms for a sociology of cosmic civilisations. 
First: Survival is the primary need of civilisation. Second: Civilisation continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.
As well as these axioms, there are two other principles at the heart of cosmic sociology: the chain of suspicion, and the technological explosion. How these fit together only becomes obvious at the end of the novel. Luo Ji is given these by Ye Wenjie, who readers will recall brought the doom of Trisolaris upon humanity in the first novel. This is an interesting move as it will eventually be the axioms of cosmic sociology that bring humanity (apparent) salvation at the end of the novel.

Why, though, is cosmic sociology axiomatic? Because of the absence of evidence from which we could build an empirical sociology. Thus, in order to build a sociology of cosmic civilisation, one must reason from acceptable first principles. Luo Ji does precisely this.

I said above that this is hard SF, and it is, but the focus is less on science or technology than one might think. Liu spends much of his time considering strategy. Indeed, the novel feels almost like a puzzle that he has set himself, and the progress of reading it is us following him towards a solution.

What is the puzzle? The puzzle rests on how to fulfil the first axiom, namely, how does one assure the survival of one's civilisation? The following conditions are what Liu sets himself to work with.

  1. Humanity cannot make any fundamental scientific progress beyond what it had at the beginning of the 21st century. 
  2. Humanity has roughly 400 years to prepare itself for war with a foe who are substantially more technologically and scientifically advanced (including in fundamental science) than humanity.
  3. The foe can monitor any and all events that take place within the Solar System in real time, but cannot interfere above the atomic level. They can, however, communicate with individuals and groups of individuals. 
  4. The foe cannot read minds. Thoughts remain unknown.
  5. The foe is ignorant of strategy and deception, as the foe's natural form of communication is such that thought and speech are one-and-the-same.

In order to counter the threat from Trisolaris, and aware of the fact that Trisolaris cannot read minds, the UN establishes the Wallfacer Project. The Wallfacers are four individuals who are entrusted with huge resources, and instructed to use them to save humanity. They are never required to explain or justify themselves, and are encouraged to conceal their true strategy from everyone, both allies and enemies. The reason behind this is that, although humanity cannot hope to defeat Trisolaris technologically, they can hope to exploit their enemies poor comprehension of strategy and deception to outsmart them. 

Luo Ji is one of the Wallfacers, the other three are Frederick Tyler, an American military tactician and former Secretary of Defence; Rey Diaz, the former president of Venezuela (a more competent Hugo Chavez who defeated the US when they invaded his country); and Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist. 

Trisolaris is deeply concerned about the Wallfacers, and their agents on Earth establish the Wallbreakers, whose task it is to guess the strategy behind the Wallfacers' projects and reveal them to the world. Eventually, all but Luo Ji's strategies are unmasked and their plans fail. Eventually, we learn what Luo Ji's plan is: threatening to reveal the location of the Trisolaran homeworld to the rest of the galaxy. 

His strategy is born out entirely from the axioms of cosmic sociology. Assuming the first two principles, and the chain of suspicion and technological explosion, Luo Ji realises that any cosmic civilisation that reveals itself to the rest of the galaxy will be destroyed by any civilisation that learns of its presence, and has the means to destroy it. Why is this? Because each civilisation will pursue its own survival above all else, each civilisation grows but there is only a finite amount of matter in the universe, and any contact with another civilisation will immediately fall into the chain of suspicion. That is, due to the sheer otherness of alien life, and the impossibility of direct and meaningful communication over interstellar scales, it is impossible to determine the motivation another cosmic civilisation will have in alerting others to its presence. Further, the exponential growth of technology (the technological explosion) means that it is possible for a small and primitive civilisation to become advanced and powerful in a (cosmically speaking) short amount of time. As such, it is always more reasonable to assume that attempted contact is a trap, and a trap necessarily implies hostility, and hostile entities must be eliminated (in accordance with the first axiom).

As such, Luo Ji realises that if he reveals the location of Trisolaris to the rest of the galaxy, he will bring inevitable doom upon them (and also the Solar System, as the proximity of the Trisolaris system to our own will almost certainly mean that humanity is detected). This is his grand strategy, and with this he is able to outsmart the invaders.

Like I said, it feels like a puzzle, a challenge Liu set himself to solve over the 550 pages of the novel, and its very rewarding to follow his reasoning. If you're thinking that this makes the novel very cold... you're mostly right. Although the writing is very elegant throughout, characterisation is almost non-existent. We hear only what characters do, and very little about their inner life (which may very well be the point: the novel is itself a Wallfacer). 

In the end, The Dark Forest is more like a beautiful piece of clockwork than anything else, both precise and oddly chilling.

Check out this deeply haunting fan film, depicting the 'Droplet' sequence from the novel.