Book Review: Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear

Greg Bear is an author with whom most sci-fi readers will be quite familiar. He is widely and highly regarded as one of the finest minds writing modern science fiction, and is noted for his imagination as well as his grasp of actual hard science. For my part, I've found his writing to be of decidedly uneven quality; his Forerunner Trilogy was a bit naff until the brilliant, monumental third book made up for all of his past sins, but the other books that I've read in his canon provided mixed results. To this day, I have still not been able to read Eon, which is supposed to be possibly his greatest work.

Yet, every now and then, he comes up with a book that makes it clear that he is, in fact, worthy of the many awards that he has won for his writing. This is one such book.

Anvil of Stars is a direct sequel to The Forge of God, and follows the crew of a ship crafted from the remains of the destroyed Earth on their mission of justice. The Benefactors, the mysterious alien race that saved a small fraction of humanity, destroyed Saturn's ice moon Europa, and directed the fragments of that moon to the dead worlds of Mars and Venus in order to terraform (areoform? aphrodiform?) those planets into homes for the remnants of Earth's children. They also created huge ships capable of moving through the interstellar void, called Ships of the Law, out of the remains of the dead planet. Now, after several hundred years spent in cryogenic sleep, the teenaged children of the dead Earth are sent out in these Ships of the Law in order to enact The Law upon those who perpetrated Earth's death.

That Law is simple: any intelligent species that builds and sends out self-replicating killer probes must itself be destroyed.

On the surface, this book is nothing more than a simplistic revenge story. As you read it, though, you quickly come to realise that there is much to the writing that is not immediately obvious. There are layers of morality, ideology, science, and politics that take time to savour and appreciate. And by the time you get to the end, you will realise that, when he stops messing about and really puts his mind to it, Greg Bear is an amazing writer.

This book is, in every way, far superior to its predecessor. The concepts that Bear comes up with are truly mind-boggling. Take, for instance, the society of the Ship of the Law. The narrative centres entirely on the viewpoint of Martin Gordon, who was but a child when his planet was destroyed in the previous book. He, along with his similarly young companions, are the crew of the Ship of the Law as it travels through the stars at near-lightspeed to seek out and destroy worlds that might once have been inhabited by the Killers. The society of the Ship starts out as basically something straight out of a combination of The Jungle Book and Winnie the Pooh- a society of freedom, individual action, and libertarian ideals in which order is preserved through mutual cooperation with only the vaguest hint of top-down leadership, and sex is essentially unrestrained between the teenagers of the ship. (I found the latter to be quite distasteful- it is made perfectly clear that male homosexuality is both open and active among the children of the Ship of the Law. I do not agree with homosexuality at the best of times; I most assuredly do not approve of it in teenagers.) As the book progresses, you see what happens as such a libertarian society is faced with the pressures of the mission, and the need for strong central command in the face of open war; and eventually, you watch as the society of the ship turns into something resembling The Lord of the Flies.

Take also the question of whether it is even ethical or moral to enact The Law upon the Killers. The crew of the Ship of the Law at first think that they have found a candidate world once inhabited by the Killers, but soon realise that it is a trap, and that through truly ingenious means, the Killers have found ways of turning matter into antimatter. The Ship barely escapes the trap, and Martin loses both of his dearest loves in the process, before the Ship of the Law eventually meets up with another Ship of the Law crewed by alien beings, who ally with the humans to enact the Law.

When the combined crews finally get their chance to enact the Law in what they believe to be the home system of the Killers, they are confronted with a terrible dilemma. The Killers no longer appear to exist in that system- but in their place exists a wondrously complex, impossibly advanced confederation of alien races that exist together in complete harmony. To enact the Law in that system would mean putting to death trillions of innocents. The moral implications of this choice are staggering, especially when you realise just how advanced the client races are compared with the humans and the Brothers (more on them shortly). If they enact the Law, they risk staining their hands and their consciences with the blood of uncounted trillions who have done nothing to deserve such a fate; on the other hand, if the Killers existed in that system, then they must be brought to justice. The same question is actually confronted by the inhabitants of an earlier Ship of the Law, occupied by a species that the humans call the Red Tree Runners, who eventually decided against enacting the Law and died out as their ship became a ghost ship travelling the void on an unknown, unknowable trajectory.

It is a weighty and difficult question, and as I read through the latter third of the book, in which this moral choice became clear, I wondered how I would respond in a similar situation. Would I be willing to overlook the atrocity committed upon my species in order to save trillions? Or would I instead choose to visit the sins of the fathers upon their children and destroy the Killers and everything they created? I could not answer the question easily, but I suspect that if I ever had to make such a choice, I would choose to enact the Law, even at the cost of my own soul. Some evils cannot be balanced; some crimes cannot be forgiven. Such, indeed, is the weight of the moral quandary facing the crew, and the way Bear handles it tells you that he understands human psychology just as well as he understands hard science.

There is more cleverness to be found as well in the way that Bear handles alien races, many of which are encountered in this book. Of particular interest is the species of Brothers, which inhabit another Ship of the Law and who make contact with the humans and eventually become part of the combined crew of the united Ship. The Brothers are not actually individual creatures but gestalt organisms- Bear presents it in terms of individual cords that are basically large non-sentient centipedes, that then join together into braids that achieve full sentience and personality. The cords themselves are of limited use, but the braids are highly evolved and intelligent, and their methods of communication- through scent as well as through speech- are handled quite brilliantly by Bear. In particular, you immediately understand through his writing how a gestalt entity might think of itself- "I we us", "We we our", "All we us", that sort of thing. The author basically introduces them with their odd manner of speaking and then very nearly ruins everything by trying to explain it all; fortunately, the reader should by that point be able to intuitively understand how the gestalt references work, such is the quality of the writing.

There were a couple of things about this book that annoyed me, of course. The first was the concept of "momerath"- an incredibly advanced form of high-order mathematics that the children of the Ship of the Law learn which allows them to do extremely complex calculations mentally and at tremendous speed. The concept is never really explained very well, so it comes across as a lot of hand-waving mumbo-jumbo, especially to a trained mathematician (which I am). The second is this concept of "noach communication". If I understood it correctly (I probably didn't), it has something to do with the spin of any given quantum particle; through the application of string theory and quantum physics, Bear would have you believe that it is possible to communicate basically instantaneously across the span of an entire star system. I found this more than a little ridiculous.

The flaws in this book do not detract, much, from its overall quality. This is in every way a brilliant science fiction book, and has done a great deal to restore my estimation of Greg Bear's skills as a writer. I knew he was good- anyone who wrote something as brilliant as HALO: Silentium can't have produced just a single fluke- but I didn't think he was this good. It would appear that I was, of course, mistaken- he is that good, he's just maddeningly inconsistent.

Didact's Verdict: 4.2/5, in every possible way this book is vastly superior to its predecessor and is both powerful and thought-provoking in its ideas and its implications.

Buy/download Anvil of Stars here.

Comments

  1. Try reading Bear's "Moving Mars" if you want more details on the physics behind "Anvil of Stars". "Moving Mars" is essentially a "coming of age" story. The physics is key to the plot of this novel. I agree that "Anvil of Stars" is way better than "Forge of God" Bear really hit his stride during the early 90's. I also recommend his novel "Queen of Angels", which is a detective story involving lots of psychology. And, yes, I think his notion that the human personality is a system of sub-selves is essentially correct.

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  2. Sounds good, I'll put them on my reading list.

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