Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Readings — The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars

The Forge of God
Anvil of Stars
by Greg Bear

Individually and collectively, I found these books to be quite odd. Superficially, they seem not unusual for science fiction; the first book is about a devastating atack on the Earth by a mysterious alien force, and the second book is about humanity’s revenge. But neither of them quite does what you’d expect them to do.

The reality is, the first book is primarily about the death of the Earth. That’s not really a spoiler; it becomes fairly clear about two-thirds of the way through the novel that the Earth is effectively doomed. The rest of the way Bear follows the characters he’s introduced as they prepare for doomsday, and as a very few lucky souls are saved from planetary disaster. I first read the book as a teenager, around the time it came out twenty years ago. I remember thinking that it was interesting, but didn’t quite work; that it needed to be deeper to be really effective. Coming back to the book, I wondered if that reaction was in part influenced by disappointment that the story didn’t have the usual easy solutions of much genre work. In the end, though, I think my teen self was right on.

I fel bad saying so; there’s considerable ambition in The Forge of God, and Bear tries very hard to give life to a diverse cast of characters. I don’t think it quite comes off, though. The inner life of the characters never really reaches the reader, they don't become quite varied enough as individuals, the internal contradictions of human existence ultimately never quite makes their way free of straight-ahead genre logic. Still, even if the book’s a failed experience, it’s worth reading. There’s a nice parallel, for example, between the death of the planet and the death of a single individual. And Bear’s hard-SF imagination is quite fine. The touch of human life is all that’s lacking, and even that is present enough for most books; except that Bear’s project here seems to me to require exactly what it doesn't have.

Anvil of Stars, the nominal sequel, is intriguing because it’s a completely different book in tone and approach. Here the last children of Earth are guided by one alien species on a kind of search-and-destroy mission against the species that destroyed their old home planet. This turns into a meditation on vengeance, justice, and the passage of time. Also on evolution; travel between the stars means relativistic speeds means that vast amounts of time have passed when the humans catch up with the race that destroyed the Earth (among many other planets). And the humans themselves have been changed by their experiences, by growing up in a radically new environment. That hard-SF imagination is fully on display here, with one fantastic wonder following another.

The second book in some ways is less ambitious than the first, in the sense that Bear’s more fully in his element. One might say that it partially redeems the flaws of the first book, but then one might also say that it’s so far distant from mundane concerns that the first book is at least an attempt at a necessary corrective. Different as the two novels are, they complement each other perfectly. Not only are their subjects different, not only are their approaches different, but the flaws and successes and why those things are flaws and successes are different. They’re two books that are better together than apart, and, in the end, well worth reading.

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