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Book Review : The Comet . . .Thereby Hangs a Tale

April 01, 1986|JOHN G. CRAMER | Cramer is a professor of physics at the University of Washington and a columnist for Analog Science Fiction/Fact Magazine. and

Heart of the Comet by Gregory Benford and David Brin (Bantam: $17.95)

In this, the Year of the Comet, the reader is well advised to be cautious in the selection of reading matter with Comet in the title. Many comet-ose works of fiction and nonfiction are appearing on the racks to cash in on the swell of public interest. This cautionary note in no way applies to "Heart of the Comet," a scary, poetic, exciting, and ultimately encouraging novel that will be on recommended reading lists long after Halley has returned to the remote outer reaches of the solar system.

In fact, an important consequence of this passage of Comet Halley around the sun is that it has caused a literary conjunction of two of the brightest stars in the science-fiction firmament, Gregory Benford (Nebula and Campbell awards for "Timescape") and David Brin (Nebula and Hugo awards for "Startide Rising"). These two have produced a glittering new work of hard science fiction.

Set in 21st Century

The story begins in 2061, as Comet Halley is completing its next near pass around the sun. A diverse group of 400 colonist-explorers have arrived at the comet prepared to dig in for the ride to apogee beyond Neptune, there to nudge Halley, with its priceless comet-load of "condensables" (water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia), into a carom-shot permanent orbit in the inner solar system.

The colonists have brought along "sleep-slots," which will let them hibernate through most of the expedition, compressing the 75-year ride into a five or so years of subjective time. Robot-like "mechs" are programmed to do most of the grunt work. Tiny bio-engineered "cyanutes" live in the colonist's bloodstreams, dealing with the ever-present cyanide gas of the comet before it can harm the human hosts. All in all, it seems to be a well-thought-out, well-equipped expedition with every likelihood of success.

Fanatical Sects

If there is a problem, it is the colonists themselves, a dis-United Nations of political factions and fanatical sects made more intolerant by the presence of "Percells," smart, tall, good-looking products of gene enhancement bio-tinkering who are hated and feared by the majority of the unenhanced "Ortho" human crew. All the religio-ethno-political baggage of a very troubled Earth has been brought into space for the comet ride. But these problems dim to insignificance when the real problems of the expedition begin. The extra heat generated in colonizing the comet awakens its dormant "Halley-life," a complete ecosystem that comes to frantic activity every 75 years in response to the warming heat of the sun.

The fight of the colonists to keep their feeble hold on survival in the resulting hellish Halley-life environment is the stuff of nightmares. But "Heart of the Comet" rises well above the techno-thriller level in describing this struggle. The novel is about the plight of humans plunged into a horrible and deadly environment, but it is also about the importance of understanding in the struggle for survival, of confronting problems with the tools of thought and discovery. And most of all, it is a tale of human courage in the face of adversity, of guts and grit and determination and clear thinking when the world is collapsing on your head.

Return to 'Hardness'

The science-fiction field has evolved along a path that leads from the pseudo-science thrillers of Science Wonder Stories through the literary pessimism/realism of the New Wave and Tolkienesque fantasy to the present era, where the return to "hardness" seems deceptively near the original roots of the field.

In "Heart of the Comet," we have it all, the techno-props and accurate physics and biology of John W. Campbell, the heroic battles with outrageous monsters of Robert E. Howard, the insights into seething human perversity of J. G. Ballard and Thomas M. Disch, the characterizational depth of Theodore Sturgeon, all of it wrapped in a scientifically plausible and entertaining package that should not be missed. "Heart of the Comet" should be on everyone's awards ballot for 1986.

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