Wednesday, February 23, 2011
10. Eon by Greg Bear
I have a strange relationship with science fiction. Basically, it's awesome and I love it. But I am not quite enough of a true nerd to actually be able to fully jump into it and be the guy who in the theatre is furiously reading a 4-inch think paperback while waiting for Aliens to start (I saw this). I often approach science fiction novels with trepidation, with fear that they will be too long, have too much detail and visualisation that I won't be able to follow, that they will be part of some massive series that I'll have to follow to get the fully satisfying reading experience. One of my 50-books goals a few years back was to catch up on a bunch of sci-fi classics and I read quite a few, but since then, it's been few and far between, reading one when the mood really strikes me.
I've been interested in Greg Bear for a while. He has a reputation of being a "hard" science fiction writer. This vague distinction always adds a level of hesitation for me. But I saw a well-read paperback on the shelf at Chainon for a buck and just felt the urge. Not giving myself a chance to be intimidated (and to wash a bit of the PC-stench of The Suspect off my mind), I jumped right in.
Happily, it turned out to be a real page-turner and definitely worthy of its reputation as a sci-fi classic. I read the 500+ pages in a couple of days, staying up too late on school nights (be concerned, Mom!). It's the near-future, 2012, and a large asteroid has appeared, about the shape of a potato and 120 km long. Upon closer inspection, it has symmetrical bands along its length and other markings that appear to indicate the work of intelligence.
I also note that interestingly this is the third sci-fi classic that involves a vessel showing up in our solar system that turns out to be hollow and reveals great secrets, the other two being Rendezvous with Rama and Titan.
Eon was written in 1985 and Bear has pushed forward the cold war context to our present day. He also added in a limited nuclear exchange, called The Little Death.
The west has the advantage in space and NATO quickly claims control of the stone, as it is called (cleverly, the Russians call it the potato). The book's perspective comes mainly from a young theoretical physicist, Patricia Vasquez, as she is called up for reasons she doesn't know to participate in the exploration of the stone. The discoveries in the stone have been kept under tight wraps and all she knows are the rumours that it is hollow and that evidence of an intelligent civilization has been discovered. The first part of the book is her going there and slowly being introduced to what they have actually found. What they have found is pretty awesome and it's a big part of what keeps the pages turning. You want to find out more!
I won't reveal any more, suffice it to say that there are external conflicts from the jealous Soviets and internal conflicts from what they learn about the civilization that did the work. I guess it's called hard science because one of the things they find at the far end of the stone is a seemingly endless tunnel made of walls of anti-matter or something. The tunnel (called The Way) is a huge part of the book and some crazy spacey-physics stuff happens. I guess the whole thing is based on real physics or something, but it all seemed like pretty standard science fiction to me. It was really cool, but I'm not sure what is so "hard" about it. A scientist would probably understand the distinction, but my point is that for a simple-minded thrill-seeker like myself, the science was not a deterrant at all.
Also, though it sounds like an afterthought, the humans and their narratives are ultimately what keep the book moving through to the end and they are quite well done. How do people react when faced with such mind-blowing situations. There is also the theme of nuclear annhiliation, something that was much more in the cultural forefront when the book was written. It is still very meaningful and intense here.