Ace, 2002, 413 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00892-5
All right, Science Fiction fans: Your wait is over. If you’ve been scouring bookstores and libraries for the next Big-SF adventure, this is it: Echoes of Earth, a spectacular, large-scale future tale with plenty of guts and a willingness to follow up on initial promises.
Admittedly, it doesn’t start all that strongly: In this imagined future, Earth has decided to explore the stars by proxy: Volunteers had their personalities scanned, copied and digitally sent to nearby stars inside an automated craft. (Shades of Greg Egan’s Diaspora, proving how the genre is evolving away from outdated assumptions.) There aren’t enough bodies for everyone, so personalities are downloaded in generic android bodies, ready to explore their destinations whenever they’re there. As the novel begins, our protagonist (an “engram” named Peter Alander, who nearly underwent a complete nervous breakdown upon arrival) is taking a bath.
Of course, there’s more. Somehow, a mechanism is activated on the planet they’re exploring, and out of nowhere, massive structures start to grow from the ground up, eventually forming -in a matter of hours!- not only a series of orbital towers, but an orbital ring around the planet. Investigating the event, our protagonist is blessed with “gifts”—automated, quasi-miraculous systems and equipment left behind by an alien race.
But wait! There’s even more! Peter quickly discovers that one of the gifts bestowed by the aliens is a faster-than-light ship. When the exploration team starts discussing what to do with that particular gadget, an automated “mole” buried deep within one of the personalities aboard the exploration ship is activated and takes control of the expedition, shutting down the rest of the crew to ensure compliance with mission directives. After some unpleasantness, Peter leaves for Earth—and discovers something very very shocking. Fortunately, an old acquaintance which has survived it all is (reluctantly) ready to help him absorb the new paradigm.
Echoes of Earth really hits its stride in this second half. The high-speed acceleration of Earth’s technological progress has radically changed the solar system, leaving deep scars. This kind of free-wheeling extrapolation is seldom seen in SF, and always welcome. The future imagined by Williams and Dix combines elements from other previous SF works, give them a spin and plays along with the results. It also helps that the second part of the novel is told from the perspective of a different character, giving an interesting take on the first protagonist, a deeply flawed personality that purposefully doesn’t include the capability to see anything wrong with itself.
It all accelerates in a scenario that would be highly unpleasant if it wasn’t told with the energy it displays. Suffice to say that if you like your SF big and spectacular, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more spectacular canvas than Echoes of Earth this year.
The only quibble I had with the novel -save for the unspectacular opening- was the ending, which seemed to wrap quickly and leave a lot of loose ends. I still might have been satisfied if it had stopped there, but it turns out that a second volume, Orphans of Earth, has appeared in bookstores as I was reading what is the first volume of a new series. Completists and singleton-lovers might want to temper their enthusiasm in consequence. Other might as well start reading as quickly as possible.
[July 2004: My enthusiasm hasn’t survived the reading of the last two tomes of the trilogy. While there’s a decent bag of cool stuff in these three books, it’s spread way too thin and never equals Echoes of Earth‘s portrait of the post-Spike solar system. The trilogy’s biggest problem, however, is that it’s all too easy not to care about the aliens and engrams characters. It certainly doesn’t help that Heirs of Earth, the conclusion of the series, purposefully avoids giving answers as to What Just Happened. Some scenes are spectacular (including an exploding sun), some ideas are nifty, some twists are intriguing, but the whole thing barely holds together. What was intriguing quickly became ordinary. It’s no wonder if it was published as a series of paperback originals.]