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29 December 2016
In 2005, after the observation of a supernova-like burst of energy, an asteroid shows up in Earth orbit. Humanity is locked in a continuing Cold War between US and USSR, and the competitive exploration of the asteroid only exacerbates the tensions. But the Stone, as the Americans call it, turns out to be hollow . . .
So far so Clarke’s Rama, you might think, which was another tale of an immense spacecraft wandering into the solar system; initially the Stone has the feel of the great rotating space habitats much loved of 1970s space visionaries. But conceptually Eon knocks Rama out of the park. The first few chapters particularly are a classic of breathless exploration, as Patricia Vasquez, a hotshot relativistic mathematician, is taken through the Stone, and we witness its unfolding wonders through her eyes.
There are no less than seven chambers inside the rock, connected by a threadlike ‘singularity’ along the asteroid’s axis. The first chamber is habitable for humans, with Earth-like vegetation. There’s a city in the second chamber – called Alexandria – with a library (the characters spend a lot of time in libraries, a trope Bear would return to in such books as City at the End of Time). And in the library Patricia is handed a copy of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer … The Stone, a copy of the asteroid Juno, is a human artefact, wandering in from another timeline. The revelations just keep on coming. The sixth chamber contains enigmatic machinery, and the seventh chamber – well, that’s a super-TARDIS; the seventh chamber goes on forever. But then the presence of the Stone kicks off a nuclear war, sketched in a few sentences: ‘the flames leaping . . . from city to city, continent to continent. People were no more substantial than pine needles’ (Chapter 32). Even the end of the world is only a chapter break in this huge novel.
And then the aliens show up . . .
Eon was written in the years in which Bear found his stride as a modern great of hard SF, stretching roughly perhaps from Blood Music(1985) to Queen of Angels(1990); he was 34 when it was published. While the book is rooted firmly in space opera traditions, and shows Bear’s inspiration from the works of the like of Anderson and Clarke, Eon is uniquely Bear. Bear was an English major, not a trained scientist or engineer like some of his contemporary hard-sf writers like Benford and Brin, and this perhaps gives his depiction of science ideas a certain imaginative looseness that leads to some wild extrapolations. Bear’s characters too are always complicated. Patricia especially, an elusive mathematical genius, can seem stranger than the post-humans: ‘We’re both odd birds,’ as one character remarks to her (Chapter 58). Like many American writers of his generation Bear’s politics are not far below the surface. But Bear cares about humanity; in the end Americans, Chinese, Soviets and their posthuman descendants stranded on the Stone team up to help Earth recover.
But what this book is essentially about is the conceptual breakthrough, a keystone trope of science fiction: the change of scale, the revelation of a meaning previously hidden. In Eon the breakthroughs come at you with bewildering speed. Novel-sized ideas are almost thrown away – like the alien Frant, a mass mind culture from a planet subject to cometary bombardment. You do have to concentrate; it’s rather like watching a particularly Moffat-esque episode of the modern Doctor Who. But for sheer ideative sugar rush, for the exhilarating sense that you almost understand as scenes of staggering complexity flicker relentlessly through your mind, it’s hard to think of a comparison in modern sf.
And if you enjoy Eon check out the sequels, Eternity and Legacy . A little calmer than its predecessor and maybe more accessible, Eternity, a drama of fantastic end-of-time aliens and multiversal redemption (Vasquez gets to go home) is similarly stuffed with wonder.
Greg Bear is regarded as one of the world's leading hard SF authors. He is the winner of five Nebulas and two Hugos, amongst many other awards, and is regarded as one of the natural successors to Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C. Clarke. He is married to Astrid Anderson Bear, daughter of award-winning SF writer, the late Poul Anderson. Many of his novels are available as eBooks from SF Gateway and in print editions from Gollancz.
Stephen Baxter is one of the pre-eminent SF writers of our time, a frequent collaborator with the late Arthur C. Clarke and President of the British Science Fiction Association. His latest novel is The Massacre of Mankind, the authorised sequel to H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which will be published on 21st January in hardback, eBook and as an Audio download.