29 September 2012

Charming little extraterrestrials

Science Fiction | Robert L Forward | Dragon's Egg

Robert L Forward had multiple degrees, some of them at doctorate levels. In engineering. And several patents. So, you can guess he was really, really smart. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle used to visit his lab so that they could cadge cool new ideas for their latest books--there's a Forward mass detector in Niven's Hole Man, for example (that's actually real technology).

So, wouldn't it be so much better to read the man's science-fictionish ideas direct? I actually approached the concept with some trepidation--not everyone can write a great story, even with mind-bending physics as a supporting character. So, I started off small, with Indistinguishable from Magic, which is mainly a collection of essays, with the occasional short story. Hmm, I said to myself, the stories are relentlessly upbeat. How much of that can I take? Can I really read a whole book with no villains, no evil human impulses? How will the story progress without the spice?

Turns out, I can take a good solid chunk of it! Which brings me to Dragon's Egg.

Dr Forward (the books are sold without the 'Dr', which seems disrespectful of his achievements to me) has written a book about extraterrestrials. Indeed, they don't live on a rocky planet. Heck, they don't live on a planet, they live on a star. A teeeeny little star. Really teeny, only 20 km across, and with a ferocious gravity gradient. Not to mention the magnetic field.

OK, backing up a bit. An astronomer graduate assistant discovers a neutron star doing a close sweep past the solar system. Her son grows up completely irritated that Mom's discovery was credited to her advisor, and becomes not only an expert on neutron star physics, but also a science writer of renown. Therefore, when it is decided to send a manned scientific mission to the star, the young Niven (hee hee, you spotted that, too, did you?) is the natural choice to lead the mission.

In parallel, we witness the rise of a new species on the neutron star. Dr Forward gives a hat-tip to Hal Clement in the appendix where he describes the species, saying that in all other respects than specifically mentioned, the species' reactions are like those of Clement's ETs in A Mission of Gravity. Except that here, we meet the females of the species, too, it being a more egalitarian society than the one on Mesklin. Clement just wrote boys books for a long time before expanding scope to include girls, too. Forward, whose wife is described in the 'About the Author' page as 'contumacious', clearly did not believe a woman's place is in the kitchen, and had succeeded once in driving a less sensible editor crazy with stories featuring a woman asteroid hunter.

By the time the humans reach the star, the aliens have progressed to mathematics, religion (for a short while) and temple building. The building is awesome enough for the humans to spot it from orbit. So they contact the aliens.

Thing is, the aliens' lives are much much faster than ours, since their reactions are nuclear, not chemical. By the time you say hello and a bit of chit-chat, the alien you are talking to is ready to die of old age. The humans beam down an encyclopedia. The aliens start to learn at a ferocious rate...

Noooo, that's not the charm of this book. The charm is in the physics and engineering. Think about it. How do you get humans within 400 km of a neutron star? The answer features antimatter, but in a literally throw-away fashion. Keep thinking.

Dr Forward called this book a 'textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel'. The publisher's blurbs include praise from scientists, science fiction writers, and one reviewer in a regular science-fiction-reviewer mode.

The problem is, the rest of his novels are not available in India, not even in second hand shops. Wail.

If you like Hal Clement books, you will love Dr Forward books and stories. If you like stories where good, decent people enjoy challenges thrown at them by the universe instead of evil people, this is your one-stop shop. If you like happy endings, yay-time! OK, you get it: I loved the book, and recommend it unreservedly. However, parents, don't let the kids in your house who are aged over 14 read this book first. Dang, they may understand it better than us adults. :D

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