Book Review: The Forge of God by Greg Bear

Greg Bear is one of those odd sci-fi authors whose work is at once very accessible and very dense. It's difficult to explain this unless you've actually read one of his books. I have read several, and I have found his books to be of decidedly varying quality. Some of his books are amazing, and others are just incomprehensible. For me, the high point of his work was definitely HALO: Silentium, mostly because he really made the long and rich back-story of the Forerunners and the Prometheans, who figure so prominently in HALO 4, come alive. But I have also tried reading some of his other books, such as Eon and his (abortive) foray into the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I found Eon in particular to be just plain bizarre; I simply could not understand what the hell he was on about after the first 200 pages or so, and it's a 500-pager.

This book is somewhere in between those two extremes, and as such is one of Greg Bear's better books, if I am any judge of such things.

The premise of the book is very intriguing. It basically asks the question, "if the world were to end due alien intervention, just how would that happen?". The answer, according to Bear, is really quite fascinating. There is no sci-fi wizardry going on here, no nonsense about planet-cracking Death Stars or faster-than-light travel or exploding suns. There is instead a realistic, scientific explanation of how an incredibly advanced and capable future civilisation might send out self-replicating "killer probes" to worlds to sentence them to death.

The book essentially presents a very interesting and complex answer to Fermi's Paradox. The legendary physicist once asked, albeit somewhat ironically and probably with his mouth full of a sandwich, something along the lines of "where the hell is everyone?". If you think about it, this is actually a pretty good question. After all, there are plenty of planets scattered throughout this galaxy and throughout the rest of the Universe that are probably capable of supporting life (we just haven't discovered them all- we are, after all, a pretty young species in Terran geological terms, never mind compared to the age of the Universe).

The answer that Bear presents is that it is quite possible that most other alien civilisations have either died out or gone into hiding- and ominously argues that the reason they have gone into hiding is because other, very old alien civilisations have found ways to send out killer probes to seek out and destroy any species or civilisation that might potentially pose a threat in the very distant future.

That is precisely what happens to Earth. A strange-looking alien shows up in an odd-looking craft and informs the American military unit that finds it that the world is under sentence of death and will be destroyed in a year's time, before dying mysteriously due to causes that no autopsy can determine. The American President, upon hearing this, basically gives up all hope of fighting back and claims, in his State of the Union address, that the Earth is now subject to the Forge of God, doomed without hope of reprieve. As the book progresses, self-replicating killer probes are found seeding the ocean floor with machines that convert water into hydrogen and oxygen, creating the raw materials for fusion bombs that will be used to crack open the planet's surface. At a slightly later point, two "bullets" of extremely dense neutronium and anti-neutronium are shot into the Earth's oceans, burrowing through the planet until they reach the Earth's molten core, where they simply circle until they eventually meet and annihilate each other (and the planet) in the process.

The narrative of the book centres around several characters and has several different themes woven together into a single plotline. The book's plot centres mostly around the scientist Arthur Gordon, who is among the first to witness the strange phenomena that precede the destruction of Earth. It focuses on his attempts to communicate with the strange messenger from the stars after being drafted onto a team of military and civilian experts attempting to decipher the mystery of the alien's presence; later, after hearing the sentence of death pronounced upon his world, he tries desperately to cope with the doom that is coming, while still maintaining life at home with his wife, his young son, and his dog. At a very human level, it is difficult not to empathise deeply with Arthur Gordon and everything he is experiencing; through his eyes, you see the world itself attempting to deal with its coming destruction.

The book also pulls away at several points to deal with broader perspectives, and switches in between several main viewpoint characters in order to build up its secondary plotlines. One of those secondary plotlines concerns the interventions of a second group, the Benefactors (though they aren't called that until the very end of the book), who race desperately to save what little can be saved and who act in the background to thwart the Killers wherever they can (including a pitched battle in the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter, interestingly enough). But they are incapable of stopping the coming destruction of Earth, so they eventually switch to using small spider-like robots to mentally "enslave" and thereby save whatever few humans they can gather into "lifeboats" of a sort, just before the world itself comes to an end. This particular plotline takes rather a long time to get going, and you don't really begin to understand it until the latter third of the book, but once you understand what the Benefactors are doing, you really begin to see why Greg Bear is considered to be one of the foremost thinkers in sci-fi.

There are, of course, some big flaws with this book. The first concerns the highfalutin scientific chicanery that goes on in the background. Now, I'm not exactly of subnormal intelligence- far from it, in fact- but I found myself struggling with some of the concepts that Bear was trying to develop. It's interesting to note that I don't have any such problem with other authors who use authentic physics and chemistry to develop interesting sci-fi ideas, so it is likely to be a problem with Bear's writing more than anything else. (I recently finished re-reading HALO: Silentium and found it to be vastly easier to understand, and as a result far more enjoyable, than the first time I read it- and I really liked that book in the first place- so I suspect that if you read Greg Bear's books a couple of times through, they start to make a lot more sense.) The concepts of matter versus antimatter and all of that were easy enough to figure out, but the way he describes the alien visitor to Earth, and the actions of the Killers' self-replicating probes, make no sense at all.

The second concerns the death of the planet Earth itself at the end. After all of the drama and tension of the preceding few hundred pages, the death of Earth comes across as a remarkably clinical and subdued affair. I would have thought it would have been... well, just more dramatic. It is instead described in rather cold and remote fashion, even though you find yourself watching it through the eyes of Arthur Gordon and his son, and you see in the epilogue how the novel sets up its sequel, Anvil of Stars.

Like much of the rest of Greg Bear's writing, The Forge of God is a complex, dense, powerful piece of work, but it is plagued as always by the inconsistency of the author's writing. I would still recommend it, though, it's a thought-provoking work of fiction and really does an excellent job of answering a difficult riddle.

Didact's Verdict: 3.5/5, a few big flaws here and there do not completely detract from an interesting and complicated work.

Buy/download The Forge of God here.

Comments

  1. Considering the fact that you think a Halo spin off novel written for Xbox fan boys (in the 14-20 yo range) is Bear's best novel, I don't give much credit to your review and encourage others to do the same.

    Greg Bear is not a perfect writer but his works are definitely far out of your league for review.

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    1. Or perhaps Greg Bear is yet another example of an overrated sci-fi writer who can actually do good work from time to time, and The Forge of God is an example of him writing well for a change.

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