Star Trek: The Next Generation #50: Dyson Sphere, Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski

Pocket, 1999, 235 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-54173-0

Star Trek has never been known as being particularly rigorous in its scientific accuracy. Hard-SF has never been praised for its overwhelming attention to characters. So what happens when two of today’s hottest hard-SF writers team up to write a Star Trek novel? Dashing all hopes of a Trek novel with the usually well-defined TNG characters dealing with accurate science, the result ends up combining the flaws of both sub-genres.

Faithful readers of these reviews, if any, undoubtedly noticed my general admiration for the novels of both Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, both of whom have written exciting novels of hard-Science-Fiction that traded characters development for clever ideas and plotting. Together, they have written The Killing Star, a pretty good modern novel of alien invasion that combined ideas and themes proper to both writers.

I found myself in the unusual position of anxiously waiting for a Trek novel when I learned that they were busy at work on a follow-up to TNG’s episode Relics. That episode, as long-time Trek fans remember well, signaled not only the return of Trek’s original engineer Montgomery Scott, but also marked the introduction of a solid SF device in the Trek universe: A Dyson Sphere.

A Dyson Sphere is, basically, a ball built around a star so that all of the star’s energy is used. It’s unimaginably big, easily providing the usable surface of billions of Earths. This is the first problem with Dyson Sphere: It’s simply too big to mean anything to the characters. Though not exactly a new problem (Niven’s Ringworld also suffered from “too much to see here” syndrome), it’s especially grating when the novel has to be over in two hundred pages.

Compounding this problem is the mis-match between setting and characters. There is nothing left for Beverly Crusher, for instance, to do but be awed and fascinated by the sphere. None of the characters can do anything about the setting. (Apart from Picard, that is, and his only emotion is a desire to explore.) Pellegrino and Zebrowski bring back the silicon-based Horta from previous Star Trek episodes, but can’t given them anything interesting to do.

The second problem is that Dyson Sphere is a story where the characters spend their time reacting to things instead of acting upon them. Basically, they discover a neutron star that will soon strike the Dyson Sphere, destroying it utterly. Fine. (What a coincidence!) But once that’s established, what’s left to do for the crew of the Enterprise? Explore until impact? That’s pretty much all there is. No suspense, even in the few action scenes. The deficient writing doesn’t help; the action is described in a minimal fashion that simply doesn’t evoke the required awe.

As if this wasn’t enough, the authors are curiously inconclusive about their hypotheses. Was the Dyson Sphere built by Borgs? Possibility raised, but left unexplored. Is the neutron star a weapon of war? Possibility raised but left unexplored. What the heck happened at the end? Possibility raised… Very frustrating. Not to mention the deus ex machina.

Ironically, the book improves after the novel ends; 37 of Dyson Sphere‘s 235 pages are dedicated to multi-pages author bios and two lengthy afterwords. The afterwords have nothing to do with the book, but they’re fascinating in their own right, discussing antimatter rockets and other advanced physics.

It pains me considerably to decommend Dyson Sphere: I really expected something better from these two authors. Great for them if the royalties earn them enough money to make them happy (Dyson Sphere was in the USA-Today Top-50 bestseller list!), but as for me, I’d suggest reading the afterwords at the bookstore and wait until the author’s next books. (Or pick up a copy of Pellegrino’s Dust, a much better work at roughly the same price…)

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