by Greg Bear
502 pages (mass-market paperback)
It is the year 2005. Five years ago, a giant oblate asteroid quickly dubbed "The Stone" appeared in Earth's orbit. An American-led team happened to land on it first, and claimed first exploration rights, but they allow Chinese and (begrudgingly) Russian scientists on board, albeit in a limited capacity.
At first it appears that the Stone was built by an alien civilization, but soon it is learned that it instead is built by human beings in the future -- although whether it is our future is another question. The library in the Stone makes no reference to the Stone, for instance, but it makes very clear references to the Death, a nuclear conflagration that will annhiliate four of the world's six billion people mere months into the future.
Complicating matters further is the fact that one of the seven chambers inside the Stone is a space-time tunnel that literally goes on forever. There are abandoned cities in two of the other chambers, and it is speculated by the characters (and known to the reader, as Bear gives us views of this early on) that the inhabitants of the Stone have left to go live on The Way, which is the appellation this wonder of physics is given by the scientists.
This kind of epic hard SF story tends to skimp on its characters, but Eon spends at least as much time on the political situation of the characters as it does on the science. Most important is Patricia Vasquez, a sheltered but brilliant young mathematician who is brought along to help understand the construction of the Way. (Yes, this book commits the error of having a mathematician perform work that should really be in the domain of a physicist, but the book does sort of justify it in the end, and I suppose you could argue that the science is arcane enough that it's really more math than physics. Still irks me, though.) Vasquez gradually grows more engaged in the world around her, especially when she realizes that nuclear war is going to destroy her home planet and everyone she cares about, and much of the first half of the book is spent on the sociopolitical situation that creates the Death in the first place.
Then the Death happens. Nuclear fire engulfs most of Earth, and a Russian team begins to take the Stone by force. Among this team is Pavel Mirsky, a cosmonaut awed by the wonders of space and with a thirst for knowledge his totalitarian government suppresses. He is shown as fully human, kind, and generous with himself. Alone among the Russian soliders, he does research into the Stone and begins to grasp its implications. He is something of a parallel with Vasquez, for just as the Russians were starting to attack, Vasquez is abducted by one of the high-tech humans living along the Way and shown the wonders of their future society.
The inhabitants of the Way live in a sort of utopian post-human era, in which genetic engineering, robotics, and symbiotic relationships with alien species have gotten rid of many of the foibles of "normal" humans. And yet even in this society freed from want, there are still political factions fighting for supremacy, fighting over who controls the direction of society. About two-thirds of the way through the book, I was thinking that the point was that even in the post-biology utopian future, we will seem to bring our need for dominance and for war, but Eon takes it one step further, and the end of the novel is a sort of contemplation on what the responsibilities of humanity are.
Some of the inhabitants of the Way want to travel back down into the Stone and help those humans who have survived the Death, whereas others are perfectly happy with their current existence and want to press forward along the Way, exploring as far as they can. Both of these options is presented as a possible future for this society, and the decision is given great weight through the personalities of our characters. We are left with great admiration for the characters that seem beyond the day-to-day life of humans on Earth like Vasquez and Mirsky, but is their abstract need for pure exploration really the most moral option, given the billions of people suffering on Earth? The novel provides no easy answers, as the final fates of the characters leaves the reader still in contemplation.
In the end, this novel ably combines the rigor of hard SF with the humanity and willingness to experiment with prose that characterized the New Wave SF of the sixties and seventies. It's as if Rendezvous With Rama was written by Samuel R. Delaney, and while the action sequences go on a bit too long for my taste, there's very little fat on this 500-page novel. This is rightly regarded as one of the classics of the genre.
Note: There are a lot of Eon-inspired art here, including some movie trailers which make me think this might actually make a really good movie, if they got some real talent behind it.