Forge of God by Greg Bear
Published by Gollancz, November2010.
Review by Mark Yon
Here’s a welcome re-release, originally from 1987. This was Greg’s fourth novel. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1987, and was also nominated for the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1988.
It is basically a combination of alien invasion novel and global catastrophe tale. As with the best of these tales, it starts simply. Set in contemporary times (well, 1996), it tells us of what happens when there are a number of seemingly-relatively minor solar system anomalies. Astronomers suddenly notice that Europa, the moon orbiting Jupiter, disappears. This is perceived with little interest by the non-astronomer general public. Then mountains are discovered in the Mojave Desert in the USA and in Australia, in areas where less than a year before there were no mountains.
What these are in actual fact are two spaceships. In the case of the spacecraft crashing in the Californian Mojave desert, there is a dying alien, in its own words, ‘a flea’, hitchhiking a ride with superior beings. In English, it tells its discoverers that it is very sorry to bring bad news but that the Earth is doomed.
In the case of the Australian ship we have metallic silver floating gourd-shapes telling people that they come in peace for our benefit.
The truth is sadly more sinister. What is happening is that the aliens, attracted by radio signals emitted from Earth, have brought with them two ‘bullets’ of neutronium and anti-neutronium that are eating through the interior of the Earth. Their meeting will be the end of the Earth as we know it. Moreover there is the scary realisation that this is deliberate: it is this that creates the matter used to birth more alien spaceships, a force created by a mechanical alien species who look at humans as if they are a lower lifeform. (Saberhagen’s Beserkers are mentioned as a sf-nal reference point.)
There is a further force: an alien spider-like species who seem to be gathering human data in order to store and retrieve for the future. Their means of doing so is chillingly creepy: like Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, they ‘possess’ people and make them do their bidding. Despite this being often proposed as a means of securing humanity’s future, and their symbiotic relationship being relatively benign, it did read uneasily for me at first.
Against this global backdrop, the characters themselves are fairly simple and prone to those clichés. There is a President who falls back on religious faith after speaking to the alien and sees the approaching Armageddon as an act of God, brought to Earth as a punishment. Consequently he is seen as giving up, and the US military have to find a means of stopping things happening whilst working around one of the most powerful men on the planet. The scientists work against time to solve the puzzles and act for the good of humanity. The government aides try not to panic the public and maintain some degree of civil order and evacuation, whilst things are clearly not retrievable.
This is both a strength and a weakness, as the characters humanise the major events and yet at times the relatively tight focus means that the reader cannot grasp the immensity of what is happening. The tight viewpoint on mainly US events consequently fails to show the wider, broader global consequences. Furthermore on the negative side, the characterisation is not the book’s strongest point. They’re workable and serviceable, yet almost Clarkean in their simplicity. President Crockerman is rather un-Presidential, and the scientists are Analog-style scientists, doing what they do as best as they can. For me this wasn’t particularly a problem, though I can see why it could annoy others.
There’s a couple of nice touches along the way. Ex-British writer and reporter Trevor Hicks has an Arthur C Clarke feel to him. There’s also a Lawrence Van-Cott, an SF writer turned television expert mentioned (that’s Larry Niven to you and me!)
Towards the end of the tale it is grim: but what is clever is the way that this unremittedly bleak tale gathers momentum. Perhaps the scariest thing for me was as time runs out, the masses carry on with life relatively normally: they buy things with money, they travel, they go to school. The enormity of the problem is just too vast for the majority of people to understand. The end is inevitable and yet there are moments of heroism and self-sacrifice. Though the global catastrophe idea is not new, this tale manages to keep many of the clichés at bay (though not all, it must be said!) The ending is still quite emotive.
It has been said (and optioned a number of times) that this would make a great movie. I agree: with a little updating, this would be brilliant.
One surprise to this reread is how far the world has moved on since this book was first published. The use of home computers and UseNet is explained here as something quite radical in 1987, whereas today it is a normal part of everyday life for most of us. Mobile phones are barely mentioned, with the discoverers of the first alien having to drive around to find a public telephone to contact the authorities of their discovery. Similarly the Cold War seems also to still be operative, which means that some of the plot difficulties are caused by that basic inability to communicate between the opposing human factions.
The skill here is that the writing on the whole still works, as long as the reader can see it from the perspective of a 1987 reader, or at least see it as part of an alternate timeline. It is engaging, gripping and scarily readable. I am tempted to say that with a little upgrade this would work just as well in 2010 as it did in 1987.
Despite its dating (nothing dates so fast as the future!) which some may find difficult to adjust to, I still think that this is a great read.
The tale is continued in Anvil of Stars, also recommended.
Mark Yon, November 2010.