Tag Archives: Ian Stewart

Heaven, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

<em class="BookTitle">Heaven</em>, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen

Warner Aspect, 2004 (2005 reprint), 428 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61103-4

I may blow my entire Science Fiction credibility out of the room by mentioning the following, but here goes: I’m not a big fan of alien-centric SF. Strange, isn’t it? But put down those pitchforks and allow me thirty more seconds to explain that one. I’m more interested in the extrapolative aspect of SF; in its ability to illuminate the familiar with the unfamiliar. The problem with alien-centric SF is that is too often feels like a self-satisfied series of tricks that are of interest to the author and few others. “Card tricks in the dark”, to cite the Turkey City Lexicon again.

Add to that my lack of interest in SF that tackles religious themes (it’s been done before, folks) and that explains why I never really bothered seeking out a copy of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Heaven. Both authors, respected scientists in their own fields, had previously shown an impressive ability to match scientific speculation with adequate fiction in their first novel Wheelers. I had to wait until I saw a paperback copy of Heaven deeply discounted at a used book sale before committing to their follow-up.

I shouldn’t have waited that long. Despite a back-cover blurb that suggests a worst-case-scenario of alien-centric SF crossed with pure religion-bashing (“…mariner Second-best Sailor leans this his planet is discovered by evangelists…”), Heaven turns out to be a lot more palatable than my own prejudices had led me to believe. Oh, it’s not an immediately compelling read, at least at first: I ended up re-reading the first fifty pages once I realized that if I hadn’t been hooked by the first few pages, there really was something intriguing going on.

Once properly set up, Heaven flies by with a succession of neat ideas and better-than-expected plotting. Stewart and Cohen won’t be mistaken for great prose stylists anytime soon, but their affection for their imagined aliens shows through, and it’s a minor marvel that they can make a deeply alien life form so compelling. Their specialty is xenobiology, and it shows in their portrait of a aquatic life-form with a strong kinship to coral. Comfortable with the language, the common assumptions and the writing quirks of genre science-fiction, the authors then proceed to deliver an unusual adventure that plays with the usual tropes of SF.

It’s not a book that I would suggest to someone who’s new to Science Fiction, since it fills a very intriguing niche in the SF ecosystem: The kind of novel written by practicing scientists, far more comfortable with ideas and conceptual issues than in delivering a standard reading experience. Fans of Hal Clement, Charles Pellegrino or John Cramer’s regrettably few novels will understand what kind of SF this is: the pure bedrock of the genre, crammed with speculations while unburdened by notions of literary respectability.

And yet explicit comparisons with Cramer and Clement do a disservice to the considerable reading pleasure offered by this novel once the basic language of the novel is established: There are a few neat tricks in Heaven‘s prose, the coolest of which being a discussion between chunks of a planet-spanning intelligence. The novel doesn’t always make sense, but it usually sacrifice logic for hard-hitting visuals: The scene that illustrates the titular “heaven” is nonsense, but it’s an utterly memorable image nonetheless.

All in all, Heaven ends up being a small surprise. It doesn’t try to be for everyone and so will probably appeal to those who are already familiar with genre SF, but it’s an overlooked delight for that readership. The lesson learned here is that authorship should trump subject matter in choosing a book to read. If you loved something by an author, don’t be afraid to disregard what you think you know about the subject of their next book. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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.