Benford & Brin's HEART OF THE COMET
Book Review by Dennis D. McDonald
This novel tackles a major effort, an attempt to rendezvous and colonize Halley’s Comet as it loops through our solar system next time around. It’s a great read.
The scale and scope of the operation are huge. Hundreds of humans are sent in deep sleep while a smaller “first shift” prepares the massive ball of ancient ice for human habitation. The authors think through the physics and the logistics of such a massive operation and make you believe — almost — that something like this might really work.
Whether or not you suspend your disbelief enough to buy into this is up to you. I was willing to do so. But, that’s a secondary concern. The amazing thing about the book is the scale of technology, planning, and economics that must underpin such an effort.
Will we really be able to pull something off like this in just a few decades, given the social and economic turmoil that the authors foresee for the 21st century? I’m skeptical. I don’t see being able to load all the needed technology into a small fleet of spaceships, no matter what levels artificial intelligence and bioengineering advance to. If science and society advance as far as the authors say so that sufficient tools and expertise can be shipped out, we should also be able to solve problems on earth arising from unequal distribution of materials, money, manufactured goods. But, hey, it’s science fiction.
Another quibble is the durability and repairability of the manufactured goods necessary to construct and maintain a colony in a hollowed out Halley’s Comet. Will the machines last? Can they be repaired? Will the comet provide all the raw materials necessary? Consider also the constant stress placed on the comet by the constructed “mass drivers” that, as they hammer away, gradually shift the shape of the comet’s orbit.
I know, the authors have worked out the orbital mechanics and have probably accurately estimated what it would take to “nudge” a giant ball of ice like Halley’s Comet to rendezvous with a planet. Could such constantly “firing” electromagnetic devices maintain operation for years on end? Again, I’m skeptical.
It’s a big novel. It’s not just long; it also contains a large number of themes and ideas, several of which are very successfully carried through out from start to finish. Once you get past the improbabilities the story sweeps you up. The story has multiple threads and streams but does manage to concentrate throughout on three main characters who are all interesting and complex. Multiple themes include:
- Racial profiling
- Genetic modification
- Orbital mechanics
- Political infighting
- Alien species
- Artificial intelligence
- Clan warfare
- Living in low gravity
- Leadership challenges
One realistic element of the story is uncertainty. Nothing seems to go according to plan. Some changes occur gradually overtime. Others occur suddenly and at inopportune times.
The authors handle these themes and blend them together with hard science plus interesting characters. As a result this novel emerges as one of the most thoughtful and creative I’ve read. Once you get past the implausibilities Heart of the Comet is a wild and engrossing ride.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald