Mining the Oort, Frederik Pohl

Del Rey, 1992, 264 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-37199-2

The paths of science and science-fiction are sometimes surprisingly similar. For instance, it’s a well-observed fact that all of science builds upon itself: It took a few centuries of observed experiments and a genial mind to conceive of the Theory of Gravity, but after that, all scientists could use this breakthrough as a basis for their own theories. From Gravity to Relativity to -perhaps- Superstring Theory, the way is toward higher, better, more comprehensive models of reality.

Similarly, science-fiction is a genre that -some say- is often centred on itself. (In fact, that’s John Clute’s theory of First SF… but that’s neither here or now to discuss.) It took a few centuries of scientific understanding, a few decades of SF groundwork and one imaginative mind to create Ringworlds, but once that was done, every SF writer could use the concept or improve upon it, like Ian Banks and his orbitals. Which is why even SF romances can use hyperspace without having to re-explain the wheel -or the hyper-dimensional drive- again.

Theoretical scientists often simplify problems by defining black boxes (“If we could produce petawatts of energy at will…”), until other scientists break up the black boxes in further components (“If we could make fusion work…”) until the problem’s solved. Similarly, SF works often postulate grand ideas (“We can terraform Mars…”), work out a few theories (“…by obtaining water from comets…”) and then some (“…which can be brought down from the Oort Cloud.”)!

If the sub-problems are exciting enough, other SF writers can write a novel about the “niggling detail” of the bigger scheme. That’s exactly what Frederik Pohl did with Mining the Oort Cloud. (He said, bringing this long and tortuous introduction to an end, nearly halfway down this review.)

As might be inferred from the above, Mining the Oort is about comets slamming into Mars. The book begins as the young protagonist Dekker DeWoe sees the first comet strike, and the narrative move along with him through training until he becomes one of those who make it happen. Along the way are the typical Pohl predictions of a grim economic future, unpleasant romantic subplots and the odd last fifty pages where the novel has to find a plot to conclude on an action-adventure note.

Most of the time, it works. The first pages aren’t tremendously exciting, but the pace picks up when protagonist DeWoe enters Oort Miner School. Fans of such work as Space Cadet, Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers already have an idea of the possibilities of a “school”-type of novel, and if Mining the Oort isn’t as exciting, it kept this reviewer interested. This type of novel often lives or die with its characters, and it’s a relief to find that Pohl hasn’t lost his touch at creating interesting supporting actors.

A few details ring false to late-nineties readers, like blaming the Japanese for almost every economic problem, or the fascination of a few characters for ultra-violent porn movies… but Mining the Oort entertains as much as could be expected from Pohl. It also occurs to this reader that this might be the ultimate comet-harvesting novel, until a few new ideas make an update necessary. Certainly, Pohl has fashioned a decent, entertaining novel of hard SF, one that might even be considered as one of his best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *