Cradle of Saturn, James P. Hogan

Baen, 1999, 421 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-57813-8

James P. Hogan has always been a very peculiar writer, constantly dogging boffo premises with botched characters and limp execution. In a sense, he’s the incarnation of everything that’s good and bad about hard Science-Fiction with his unique extrapolation of original ideas mixed with an appalling inability to write. Cradle of Saturn is a frustrating novel that’s highly representative of his body of work.

In a few words, Cradle of Saturn is yet another novel of implacable celestial catastrophe. The late nineties -driven by pre-millennial fever, the intellectual impact of the Schumacher-Levy comet on Jupiter or simply synchronicity- were filled of such stories on a variety of media: ARMAGEDDON, DEEP IMPACT, the TV miniseries “Asteroid”, Yvonne Navaro’s ludicrous Final Impact, etc… It wouldn’t be fair to criticize Hogan, however, for being unoriginal given the mood of the times. (He himself even bemoans his unfortunate timing on his web site)

For one thing, he’s far more innovative in his choice of celestial body: Rather than hand-wave a collision between two rocks in the asteroid belt, Hogan postulates as-yet unknown planetary mechanism to extract a planetoid out of Jupiter. (the moniker “Athena” is inevitable) Before anyone can say “Uh-oh, not again”, Athena is lined up in a game of planetary snooker to send Earth in the corner pocket.

The first half of Cradle of Saturn is its most embarrassing from a literary point of view. Characters have little meetings to hurls reams of expeditionary material at each other, nods gravely and then rush off to other expeditionary meetings. Our hero, Landen Keene, is a maverick engineer who only wants to build cool rockets without being hampered by a stunningly unimaginative government. (Stop me if you’ve read that one before.) For some strange reason, though, he seems to be surrounded by people who think that conventional scientific dogma is wrong on a number of subject. And for some other reason, the rest of the scientific community is a bunch of retarded morons who’ll do their best to ignore new evidence.

Aside from the cliché characters, the cheap and constant “they laughed at Galileo!” discourse and the atrocious integration of cool ideas in a weak narrative, this half of the novel is actually quite interesting. Hogan’s science is far-fetched, but unusual enough to make us pay attention. His rant on the improbability of dinosaurs alone will be enough to make even the hardened skeptics very curious about alternate explanations. But the real argument of the book is about celestial mechanics, the formation of planets, the impact of near-misses on the atmosphere, the strangeness of our universe and scientific evidence hidden deep in our myths and religious texts.

By now, readers familiar with recent pseudo-science might recall a similar theme of thought in Immanuel Velikovsky’s widely-debunked work. (Worlds in Collision, a staple of the sixties’ new-age fad) Given Hogan’s fascination for weird science (again, please refer to his web site), it’s unsurprising that he’d set up a premise suitable for a rematch. His arguments are vigorous and clever. He even conspicuously avoids any mention of Velikovsky apart from the novel’s dedication and stacks the deck with convincing fictional arguments. SF is a rational game of “what-if?” and Hogan plays it very well. Experience Hard-SF readers will read this section with glee and ignore the flaws.

The second half of the novel, alas, isn’t nearly as good. Athena hits, most people dies and our heroes are on a mission to escape Earth. While one can temporarily forget the inherent elitism in letting most of the planet die to save a few valorous heroes, the problem is that when he’s not being intellectually stimulating, Hogan doesn’t have a whole set of narrative skills to work with. The latter action-oriented half of Cradle of Saturn is trite, long and boring. Rather than end on a triumphant success, Hogan’s novel ends on an mixed note of shameful escape and exasperating hypocrisy.

Hard-SF fans might want to tolerate the flaws and savour the ideas. Others should be warned that there are more satisfying novels out there.

[July 1998: James P. Hogan fans (and non-fans) already know that he’s not a very accomplished stylist. They might have a surprise with Realtime Interrupt, which is easily his best book yet. A tale of virtual realities that brings back memories of quasi-Dick-ian paranoia, Realtime Interrupt also takes the time to mull over various aspects of Artificial Intelligence. Corporate infighting is mixed up with mature romance and the result is slow to revv up, but worth the wait. It’s a shame that most of the first half of the book is fairly obvious to even the average reader; the last third gets better as it goes on. The climax is vivid. Readers disappointed by Hogan in various outings might want to check this one out.]

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