Heart of the Comet, Gregory Benford and David Brin

Bantam Spectra, 1986, 468 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 0-553-05125-3

The passage of Halley Comet in 1986 was, to the layman, almost the definition of a non-event: It passed too far away from Earthy to be easily visible to the naked eye and all the media build-up was reduced to naught. (Fortunately, ten years later, the spectacular Hyakutake comet proved to be far more spectacular, satisfying all of us “once-in-a-lifetime” astronomical freaks.) Still, Halley provided a reasonably good excuse to vulgarize information about some of the solar system’s most fascinating subject.

In 1985-1986 -probably envisioning a truckload of media-derived money- hard-SF authors David Brin and Gregory Benford collaborated on a themed novel titled Heart of the Comet. Even though the result didn’t set the world of SF on fire, it still proves to be a reasonable read even more than a decade later.

The novel follows three characters as they embark upon a massive expedition on Halley. Far from being a joy-ride, this scientific mission aims to stay on Halley for a complete 76-years orbit. The story begins in 2061 as the hundreds of scientists, engineers and other personnel attached to the Halley mission board the comet and burrow inside in an effort to make themselves at home. Everything seems to be working for a while, until the colony faces the first of the innumerable dangers of the voyage…

The scope of Heart of the Comet is large enough to satisfy most readers, spanning more than fifty years and the whole solar system. The novel plays with most of Science-Fiction’s usual devices, from space exploration (naturally) to artificial intelligence, body modification, longevity, etc… It’s a Big SF Book, and nearly succeeds as such.

Given the academic pedigree of both co-authors, it’s no surprise to find out that the science of Heart of the Comet is reasonably exact, or convincingly faked. No faster-than-light gizmos, but plenty of paragraphs of we-did-our-research information on comets. A few welcome diagrams and plans punctuate the book, providing occasionally very helpful ancillary material.

Unfortunately, the book proves to be less successful outside the realm of straight scientific knowledge: Several annoying SF clichés are used without apology, and the result diminishes the impact of the book. The most egregious is the character of Saul Bellows, who proves to be not only a scientist on the order of Newton and Einstein combined, but also the co-father of genetically-enhanced human group and an immortal. (!) Though it’s certainly handy to have someone like this around, it strains credulity to use such a character as a universal solution. The treatment of the AI is also weak, bringing little of importance to the plot besides a happy (deus-ex-machina, literally) ending. There’s yet-another-war-between-humans-and-superhuman. The oh-so-bad “irrational” religious sects also make a wholly expected appearance. You gnash your teeth in frustration at a the characters’ blockheadedness.

But if it’s a comet SF story you want, then this is what Heart of the Comet delivers. A decently enjoyable mix of hard-SF and gritty adventure. You could do worse than pick up this book. At nearly 500 pages, chances are that it’ll last until your next peek at a comet.

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