Book Review: The Forge of God by Greg Bear
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 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.
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.