Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, March 25, 2012

1979: The Web Between the Worlds (Sheffield, Charles)

Lots of science with very little else (3/5)
From December 28, 2010

Combining a pedestrian plot with an endless stream of science, Sheffield leaves lots of open room for character development but obviously prefers to keep it simple... and by "simple" I mean throwing in phrases like Maclaurin and Jacobi ellipsoids, heuristic elements to optimized algorithms, nonlinear elasticity and thermal diffusion. If you have any inkling to what Sheffield is talking about, perhaps you might enjoy the instruction manual more than me but it read just like that as there was little emotion, personal development or greater "greatness."

"Rob Merlyn was the best engineer who had ever lived. That was why Darius Regulo, "The King of Space," had to have Rob for the most spectacular construction project in the history of the human race--even though Rob was a potentially fatal threat to Darius's power... Thus begins a breakthrough novel, written by the President of the American Astronautical Society, about an idea whose time has come: a shimmering bridge between earth and space, a veritable beanstalk that mankind will climb to the stars!"

Beginning with the unbelievable contraption of the Spider (which is made to expel 200km of silicon cable two meters wide in one day), some of the future science borders on ridiculous for the 2070. There's also a genetically modified Mole which consumes and mines coal, which is then further modified to work in vacuum and mine other materials. With personal earth-to-orbit craft a commercial norm and the transfer of asteroids from outer-Mars orbit a lucrative business, Sheffield's vision of the future is very optimistic but also very tedious to read.

It's all fine and dandy to base a novel around the construction of a space elevator, or a Beanstalk as it's called in the book, but the plot keeps returning to the conversation between the engineer Merlin (misspelled Merlyn on the rear cover!) and this financer Regulo about the nitty-gritty specifics about the Beanstalk. The novel is merely a steady unfolding of the schematics for the elevator between the two characters, perhaps a fantasy which Sheffield felt he just had to put forth in a novel.

Even with all the geeky science and unfathomable scenes of what all the contraptions must look like, there is a good amount of awe involved. The what-if factor for the space elevator was the biggest draw to the novel, in my opinion. It held my wonder and awe for a good amount of the length, but was getting annoyingly distracted by frivolous attempts by Sheffield to add sympathy and evil. It all fell very flat, very quickly. The evil was superficial and the sympathy was an exaggerated effort. It MIGHT have been a better novel is WAS just an instruction manual for the space elevator.

Regardless, I look forward to picking up another Sheffield novel to see if he has any other big ideas so fully worked out as in The Web.

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