The Dark Forest
Volume two of Cixin Liu’s science fiction trilogy.
The universe had once been bright, too. For a short time after the big bang, all matter existed in the, and only after the universe turned to burnt ash did heavy elements precipitate out of the darkness and form planets and life. Darkness was the mother of life and civilization.
The dark forest is the universe, but to get there — with insight — takes a path through Cosmic Sociology:
“See how the stars are points? The factors of chaos and randomness in the complex makeups of every civilized society in the universe get filtered out by distance, so those civilizations can act as reference points that are relatively easy to manipulate mathematically.”
“But there’s nothing concrete to study in your cosmic sociology, Dr. Ye. Surveys and experiments aren’t really possible.”
“That means your ultimate result will be purely theoretical. Like Euclid’s geometry, you’ll set up a few simple axioms at first, then derive an overall theoretic system using those axioms as a foundation.”
“It’s all fascinating, but what would the axioms of cosmic sociology be?”
“First: Survuival is the primary need of civilization. Second: Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.”
“Those two axioms are solid enough from a sociological perspective … but you rattled them off so quickly, like you’d already worked them out,” Luo Ji said, a little surprised.
“I’ve been thinking about this for most of my life, but I’ve never spoken about it with anyone before. I don’t know why, really. … One more thing: To derive a basic picture of cosmic sociology from these two axioms, you need two other important concepts: chains of suspicion, and the technological explosion.”
The derivation from these axioms is the Exterminator. Resource conflicts between civilizations follow strictly from the two axioms. Game-theoretic tension is added by irreducible suspicion, and technological explosion.
“That’s the most important aspect of the chain of suspicion. It’s unrelated to the civilizations’s own morality and social structure. … Regardless of whether civilizations are internally benevolent or malicious, when they enter the web formed by the chains of suspicion, the’re all identical”
Which is to say, they are all threats to each other, intrinsically, and irresolvably. Technological explosion means that any civilization represents a potential menace of inestimable potential, escalating massively within a span of mere centuries, and “On the scale of the universe, several hundred years is the snap of a finger.” An intolerable danger, then.
“That’s … that’s really dark.”
“The real universe is just that black.” Luo Ji waved a hand, feeding the darkness as if stroking velvet. “The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel, or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”