Wheelers, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Warner Aspect, 2000, 505 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-52560-X

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating again: The most representative works of Science Fiction, the ones that really rekindle our burning love for the genre, are not necessarily the best. Great characters, gripping plotting and superb writing are nice, certainly, but they are in no way what differentiates SF from the vast body of “other” fiction. Fans of the genre can appreciate a good work of fiction over a bad one, but we read the stuff for other reasons: The ideas, the concepts, the unflagging dedication to logic and reason as our best hope for the future. These are what makes SF so special. Call it an ideological position fit for nerds and geeks if you want, but you won’t be able to shake the appeal of fiction that speaks directly to what we believe in.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Wheelers is pretty much a textbook-example of how to write hard-core Science Fiction. It’s not particularly strong in any area save for ideas, technical accuracy, respect of science and sense of wonder. In short, everything that makes this genre so great and so much fun.

The plot ball takes a while to get rolling, but when it does, it places circa-2220 humanity in the path of a comet. (The situation is actually more complicated than that, given how the comet was redirected toward Earth after a decidedly unnatural realignment of Jupiter’s moons.) Given the nature of celestial mechanics, there’s both plenty of warning and not much time to spare: A team of crack scientists is assembled and shipped off to Jupiter to investigate the findings. It helps, somewhat, that proof of some Jovian intelligence had been discovered by the book’s protagonist right before everything started to go wrong.

Naturally, the plot isn’t the main attraction here. Stewart and Cohen are both working scientists and so the real meat of Wheelers is in the details. While not staggeringly original, the imagined future presented in this novel is intriguing, what with Earth clawing its way out of an anti-technological age, the moon and the asteroids in the hand of a Zen sect and plenty of alien activity underneath Jupiter’s clouds. Just you wait, though: The revelations get progressively more exhilarating and even if the plot concludes far too early, the last few pages are a carnival of neat ideas.

It speaks volume that by far the most interesting segment of the book is a pure application of physics: When, midway through, one character absolutely has to go from planet A to planet B in mere days rather than the usual months dictated by chemical propulsion technology, a hair-raising hack is devised involving celestial mechanics and mass drivers. It’s a wonderful, jaw-dropping sequence, and a neat idea that wouldn’t feel out of place in, say, one of Niven’s good hard-SF stories. Real SF fans will lap it up like milk chocolate.

Happily, the rest of the book is a lot like that. To their credit, the authors manage to craft a good novel without too many obvious flaws —though the way the POV kept switching from one paragraph to another in the same scenes is truly annoying. Yes, the novel spends far too much time establishing back-story, ends too soon, muddles its “alien viewpoints” segments and doesn’t create much empathy with its human characters. But it does conform to most accepted standards, and heaven knows that other working scientists have churned out far worse stuff in the history of SF.

But few of those things matter when considering the intellectual ride that is Wheelers. The erudition of the authors is obvious throughout (they can’t resist “As you Know Bob” scenes, but they do it in a reasonably entertaining fashion; see P.25-30), there are a fair numbers of cute little gags and the steady escalation of revelations is profoundly satisfying to anyone weaned on a diet of classic hard-SF.

Every year, dozens of hard-SF novel pass unnoticed by fans who would rather complain that there’s nothing interesting being written in the Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein vein. While Wheelers is not -let’s be honest- in the same league, at least playing the same sport, and sometimes that’s just good enough. Hard-SF fans, rejoice… and give Wheelers a spin or two.

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