The Spheres of Heaven, Charles Sheffield

Baen, 2001, 440 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-671-31969-8

Recently, as I was discussing the current state of Science-fiction with a far more more learned acquaintance, I found myself admitting that I’ve run out of patience with “ordinary” SF. The genre has limitless possibilities and the universe as a canvas: Why is it that writers are content in recycling stock premises, tired conventions and material we’ve already read countless times? Let’s forget the past fifty years and move forward, people! Our future has changed since 1980!

Alas, Charles Sheffield’s The Spheres of Heaven isn’t new SF. At all. Not only is it a sequel (it can be read independently from The Mind Pool, but it’s still a sequel), but its imagined universe smells suspiciously familiar. Interstellar travel is handled by “Link” gates, but they are not accessible to us: Humanity is locked out of the galaxy by alien races fearful of our potential for violence. The Solar System is colonized from Mercury to the Oort Cloud, but after twenty years of isolation, there’s a strong sense of stagnation. But here come the aliens, and they need good-old human audacity to solve a prickly problem involving a new Link and disappearing ships.

That’s the setup. Alas, it takes nearly two hundred pages to do anything with it. And what’s explored isn’t the tension between violence and stagnation, but yet another dull story of first contact with conquest-thirsty aliens from another dimension.

Excuse me as I yawn.

It could have been interesting had the writing been up to the task. But Sheffield’s never been a character-driven author nor a master stylist. If you strip away his ideas, you usually end up with a dull novel indeed, and this is the fate that awaits The Spheres of Heaven. It’s lifeless and just takes forever to rev up. From the exploration of the alien environment to the formation of protagonist Chan Dalton’s team, The Spheres of Heaven seems padded and then dull: To put it simply, too many words are used for the density of action described.

It doesn’t help that the novel constantly focuses on the wrong things. At the beginning of the novel, the accretion of Dalton’s team is fascinating, yet Sheffield insists on cutting away at every other chapter. Then Sheffield does the unforgivable: why assemble such a crack team of fascinating specialists if you’re not going to do anything with them? Later, Friday Indigo’s trip becomes another central focus, leading to another loss of tension in the narrative.

Another problem with The Spheres of Heaven is how it often reads like a novel for teenagers, retrofitted to appeal to adults. (Sheffield has written teen novels for Tor, so that may not be a completely ridiculous theory). Sure, the characters have sex lives and are often ex-addicts, but the overall plotting and execution seems to appeal to unsophisticated SF readers. Details such as the composition of the strange watery environment in which environment our characters are stuck takes forever to explain when even the most casual reader thinks “Heavy water!”

Idea-wise, there’s not much to digest in The Spheres of Heaven. We’ve seen most of it elsewhere, and usually better-used. Dimension-hopping’s been done before. So have expansionist aliens, human quarantine, first contact and/or exploration of strange environments. (And I say this without having read the previous book!)

It’s a shame, really, because Sheffield has been capable of far better things. But The Spheres of Heaven has all the hallmarks of a slap-dash hack job, the type of book written for quick bucks and paid by the word. Even Sheffield enthusiasts may have a hard time finishing this one. It’s not appallingly bad (certainly, we’ve seen worse, even from this author), but it has no compelling features either. Sense my lack of patience, will you?

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