Synopsis: When an enormous force field envelopes a nearby star, humanity send an exploration ship to investigate.
Book Review: This was an interesting exercise for me, as I first read this book near its original publishing date, so 2004/2005. Rereading it now put into focus many of the ways my tastes have changed, as well ways that the world has changed.
For example, in the first chapter we follow an astronaut participating humanity’s first manned flight to Mars. In my first reading, all I could see was the glory and grandeur of this feat! The event itself is what held my attention. In my re-read, I noticed for the first time that the astronaut is written to be a bit of a prick. He’s arrogant and self-centered. I was reading him for the first time as a person of his own, rather than as an insert for me as I was experiencing the awesomeness of landing on Mars.
In the second chapter, a professor basically puts his entire life on hold in a long-con-style escapade to be the first to publish on the force field event. I was amazed at how long he delayed, how many years of his life were diverted into this effort. I would have just gone public with my observation looooong before reaching that goal. Except when I reread it, it turns out that super-long delay was only eight months. Eight months! Nowadays I fart and eight months blow by, how could it have seemed like such a long time when I was younger?
Anyway, young-me loved this book. I’ve kept my physical copy all these years, through a dozen-ish moves. It takes the idea of human-created wormholes and develops it to a fantastic extent. Hamilton has thought through what it would mean for transportation (everything travels everywhere by rail now!), exploration, government, colonization, etc. It finds all the ways that humans would use, abuse, and break this technology, and touches on all of them.
Hamilton is also very good with his physics. The science is hard, the speed of light is never forgotten, and so forth. This makes for some extremely satisfying competence-porn in several occasions, as characters in crisis situations use tech and science we’re familiar with in new and innovative ways to solve problems. It feels fair every time, and ingenious, and gives one the thrill of seeing that sort of smart problem-solving.
Also, the aliens are really, truly alien. The book is probably worth it for their chapters alone.
On the other hand, present-me had several problems with the book.
For starters, it’s really over-written. There are entire subplots and characters which simply don’t do anything, and could probably be taken out entirely. There are scenes that feel like they could’ve been wrapped up in a few paragraphs rather than taking many pages. The physical descriptions of locations and actions is at times exhaustive, without great reason, and I found myself skipping a lot of it. Yes, it’s worldbuilding. But often was worldbuilding for it’s own sake, rather than in service of another goal, and while many people love worldbuilding by itself, I am not one of those people.
Secondly, basically none of the characters are sympathetic. Ozzie starts out that way, and is the most relatable, but even he loses his luster after a time. Myo starts out cold, but slowly grows on you, to an extent. Most everyone else is unpleasant, and I found myself disliking them.
Thirdly, while the implications of a technology are extrapolated greatly, this does not happen with society, or with people in general. This is a tech & plot story, rather than a character story. It made everything feel somewhat… distant. Impersonal?
Finally, the sexual stuff in this novel is just weird. It feels like it came out of golden-age SF. The men use their power/information to get sex. The women use sex to get power/information. Most jarringly, at one point Ozzie and his young tagalong kid are mistaken for lovers. The intense awkwardness that this sparks is due to the fact that someone thought they were gay. Ozzie coulda just dropped “No homo!” for how quickly he skittered away from that. But neither Ozzie nor the lady who mistook him for gay seem to have the slightest problem with the fact that Ozzie’s supposed-lover is a 15 year old boy. Like, no one seemed to notice or care that he’d just been called a pedophile. WTF?
All in all, I was far more into this novel as a younger man. I think I read books differently now, more like I’m reading about other people rather than as self-insert stories. And I’m far less interested in world-building. It was mentioned in the book club that this felt similar to “Rendezvous at Rama” or “Ringworld,” neither of which I have read. This is probably a great book for people who love those sorts of books. Yet I still have fond memories of how much I loved this, and it does have quite a few cool parts, and an interesting world! I guess, ultimately, this would have been significantly more interesting if I was reading it for the first time, rather than rereading and already knowing what was coming. I can’t say with certainty that I’d recommend it to a present-day-me who hasn’t read it… but I might. So… Mildly Recommended?
Book Club Review: This thing is huge. It’s nearly 1000 pages, which is why we split it in two to ready over two sessions. And it’s still only half the story, because the story continues on to be concluded in Judas Unchained. I know there are people that like super-long fiction for its own sake, but having something this long does suppress turnout somewhat.
Aside from that, it was fairly interesting to talk about. It’s a real mixed bag of things that kinda rub one the wrong way, and things that are really fun and interesting. There’s something for everyone to like, and something for everyone to dislike, and the discussion of where those coincide and where they differ was cool. And because the book is so damn big, you probably won’t run out of material. On the other hand (again), none of the things brought up were deeply thought-provoking or personality-exploring. Which, of course, not every book can be, or even wants to be. So it was fun, but not exceptionally so. I’m not sure how my past memories are coloring my judgement, but I guess, Mildly Recommended as well.