Robert L. Forward

Dragon’s Egg, Robert L. Forward

Del Rey, 1984, 309 pages, C$2.75 mmpb, ISBN 0-345028349-X

(Or: Too much of a good thing. WAY too much of a good thing…)

I adore Hard SF.

You see, SF for me stands for Science-Fiction, not the recent wishy-washy labels “Speculative Fiction”, “Sociological Fantasy”, “San Francisco” or even (the pain!) the all-inclusive “Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror and all kind of stuff we just call SF because we really don’t have the IQ to know better.”

(It’s all a plot, I tell you: People without the technical qualification came in, found that they couldn’t compete with Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke on their own terms and resolved to change the rules of the game so they wouldn’t get beaten up so badly. Tie this with the decline of the American Empire and receive 5,000 bonus points.)

Generally, the harder the SF, the better I like it. It’s no accident that my favourite books last year were Red Mars, The Ascent of Wonder and Tau Zero, all heavily-hard SF. Pushed at the extremes, I’ll grab a science non-fiction book rather more quickly than a non-science fiction book.

(This is the point that I choose to remark that not everyone is mentally equipped to follow science non-fiction books… heh-heh-heh.)

I remember reading a Robert L Forward novel (Timemaster) a few years ago, and being embarrassed at the characterisation, which is quite a feat for someone who’s proud of being style-deaf. On a whim, I picked up Dragon’s Egg, resolved to find out if Forward was really as bad as I remembered.

He is. In the words of David Pringle’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of SF: “ill-written novels” Forward is a terrific idea generator, but can’t dramatize them for beans. In the tradition of the worst B movies, some of the dialogue is so bad, it’s hilarious. Here’s an instance, chosen at random: [Page 32 of the paperback edition]

“The pulses could be high frequency bursts that are higher than the nominal design frequency for the low frequency radio antennas,” he said. “Can you calculate the antenna pattern for a higher frequency?”

And this is one of the better ones. I am not making this up.

Yet, it would be too easy to blast this novel on poor drama, laughable dialogue and cardboard characters. These three literary qualities are not why this novel was published. And allowances must be made, for Dragon’s Egg was Forward’s first novel.

What is impressive about this book is the rigorous scientific extrapolation underlying the story: A race of sentient beings evolve on the crust of a neutron star, where gravities and magnetic fields are enormously more powerful than on earth. These beings, called Cheelas, live about ten thousand times more rapidly than humans. During one human hour, 5 cheela generations pass…

As it happens, one human scientific mission is there just at the good time and place to give a little help to the cheela. In twenty-four hours, they go from roman-type empire to FTL flight…

Most of the book is very, very boring. This is one of those few novels where the alien passages feel more natural than the human scenes. (See my gripes about dialogue: I can believe in aliens talking that way, but humans??? Nah….) But the scientific stuff is fascinating, and the last few pages are gripping; pure hard-SF candy for the mind.

It won’t surprise anyone that there’s a technical appendix at the end. Also not surprising is the usefulness of such an appendix. In a hurry, just read it and skim the remainder of the novel.

This surely isn’t a book for everyone. I had a few problems following the most abstract concepts, and I can’t expect everyone to slug through two hundred pages of polysyllabic words for a few pages of sensawunder and a technical appendix.

But if you’re able to handle it, go ahead…