Lightpaths, Howard V. Hendrix

Ace, 1997, 345 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00470-9

Looking at the bookstore shelves nowadays, it would be too easy to think of science-fiction as a dead genre, replaced by fat fantasy trilogies, endless media spin-offs and cheap thrillers with aliens and laser guns. But, despite the endless moaning of doom from many (this critic occasionally included), this is simply not true. There has rarely been so much good, serious hard-SF fiction published at a same time. Looking at the May 1998 SF bestseller lists, we can see books from such dignified examples of good, hard SF writers like Clarke (3001), Benford (Cosm and Foundation’s Fear), McDevitt (Moonfall and Eternity Road), Flynn (The Forest of Time), Bear (Dinosaur Summer and Foundation and Chaos) and Bova (Moonwar), with Cramer (Einstein’s Bridge) and Brin (Heaven’s Reach) waiting in the wings.

Not only isn’t hard-SF dead yet, it’s not even sick.

Past these powerhouses of hard-SF, many other writers are writing perfectly delightful works that deftly combine serious extrapolation, scientific knowledge and narrative savvy. Lightships (Howard V. Hendrix) is a perfectly acceptable example of them.

Almost half a century in the future, events come to a head inside and around an orbital complex high above the Earth: A socially-engineered Utopia is threatened by factors both internal and external. A computer system might attain sentience. A male researcher with a voyeurist masochist fetish seeks to design a fool-proof population-reduction device and transform human society into a highly selective matriarchy. Meanwhile, his female co-worker is working on an immortality plague. Mysterious X-shaped objects are being manufactured in space around the complex. During that time, a highly popular musical group is giving concerts on the habitat.

Even in nearly 350 pages, there is a lot of material in Lightpaths. It’s almost ridiculous at times (A conversation almost turns into something like “Hi! I’m working on a way to diminish Earth’s population. You?” “Oh, I’m finishing my work on immortality.”) but it does make for interesting reading. Woven with great skill throughout almost all facets of the book is the motif of Utopia.

This book offers a lot of food for thought. Even the questions asked by Hendrix aren’t as easy as one might suppose: He is a writer with great ambitions, matched with obvious talent. Especially catchy are the invented musical lyrics, which can easily be hummed. It will be interesting to see where Hendrix goes next.

Which is not saying that the book is flawless. The cover quote is by Robert J. Sawyer, who says “If Robert A. Heinlein had grown up reading William Gibson… Lightpaths is the novel he’d have written.” While it’s easy to see why Sawyer used this simile (Lightpaths‘s utopia has distinct Libertarian overtones, and there is a distinctively cyberpunk edge to at least one subplot… then there’s the Gibsonesque writing style) it must be said that Hendrix still doesn’t master the sheer narrative verve that Heinlein used so well.

If Lightpaths is great food for thought, is fare substantially less well as pure entertainment. The prose style is not compulsively readable. The characters are fully realized but a bit bland, and have a certain delight for indulging in endless conversations. There isn’t a lot of action until the end of the book. After all has been said and done… it does seems like opportunities have been missed.

Nevertheless, Lightpaths is still worth a look, especially if you’re interested in promising young authors, the theme of Utopia, cyberpunk-inspired prose or the current state of SF. It’s original, fully-conceived and a bit disappointing. But it clearly demonstrates the kind of good SF that can be found right now on library shelves, provided you’re willing to take risks and explore a bit.

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