Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, April 19, 2012

1987: Benefactors 1 - The Forge of God (Bear, Greg)

Wonderfully complex and utterly absorbing (5/5)

The Forge of God was the first science fiction novel I read back in 2006. It was the beginning of a beautiful marriage! I continued with Bear's The Way series, Niven & Pournelle's Footfall and Lucifer's Hammer, Strieber & Kunetka's Warday, and the Hitchhikers Guide series. I started off my sci-fi marriage with 1980s science fiction and I constantly look back on that year with longing nostalgia. Thereafter, until April 2012, I started to only read novels I've never read before... so after five years, I return to The Forge of God to splash in the warm tide pools of sci-fi nostalgia. It's just as good as I remember!

Rear cover synopsis:
"June 26, 1996: One of Jupiter's moons disappears.

September 28, 1996: A geologist near Death Valley finds a mysterious new cinder cone in a very-well mapped area.

October 1, 1996: The government of Australia announces the discovery of an enormous granite mountain. Like the cinder cone, it wasn't there six months ago..."

Jupiter's moon Europa has disappeared and, frankly, all the scientists are baffled, especially family man Arthur Gordon. But with time, the news dies down and another story springs onto the channels: in Australia, the discovery of a giant granite mountain and its robot envoys has swept the world. Meanwhile in America, geologists come across a cinder cone and nearby lies a is dying dinosaur like alien with a message of dire warning. This message contrast the benevolent greetings and exchange of information the Australian robots are involved in. Arthur is wrangled into the US government project by his leukemia-stricken friend Harry. The two assist the government in interrogating the oddly-composed alien and the geologists who found it.

All is not well when the alien dies and robots blunder. Huge spikes of ice are heading straight for Mars and Venus, a passing gravity anomaly has scientists confused, and the sudden presence of covert metallic spiders has some people acting funny. Reuben is one such person, who becomes under the influence of the spiders and follows its commands, but to what end Reuben and the others do not know.

The Forge of God has a seemingly endless line of discoveries and it's nearly impossible to write a synopsis in only a few paragraphs. The mystery of the missing moon is compounded, but not explained until the end, with more and more mysteries which taken on different forms. The scientists are confused, the country is confused, the world is confused--this leaves the reader with a massive connect-the-dot puzzle with which to draw your own picture. Even reading this book six years later, I couldn't piece it all together and eventually found myself way off tangent... the plethora of possibilities Bear has constructed in this book is massive.

But it's just not about the end of the world or the alien invasion. These topics have been nearly run into the ground prior to 1987 (with a welcome resurgence of apocalyptic novels of recent), so Bear does three things which I found very clever:

(1) ...the endless amount of reader speculation brought upon by alien subterfuge. Most novels would simply take a linear shot at the plot, involving the a handful of twists and a half dozen characters with a predictable trope and call it a novel. Bear has the reader backtracking time and time again to remember how all the pieces fall into place; each new discovery has the reader fitting the new piece into their mental construction of what Bear is trying to accomplish.

(2) ...the inclusion of a rather mundane, unimportant cast. The geologists who discover the cinder cone and the alien become under government quarantine. Their personal struggles with isolation is captured, as is their coping with life after their release. But the best part of this inclusion is their salt-of-the-earth demeanor, their bond of friendship, and how they each react to the news of the end of the world and the actual end itself.

(3) ...the abundance of characters used. Blessedly, I read this book in less than three days so I wasn't overwhelmed with the resurfacing of the random cast throughout... but a "dramatic personae" would have been helpful with science fiction authors (tipping the hat to Niven), scientists, government bureaucrats, children, townspeople, cultists, and average Joes. It's a dynamic presentation with the leading cast highlighting Bear's ability to characterize human being on the pages.

Lastly, there are 74 chapters plus in intro and an outro, which are headed under nine headings. These headings are in Latin and, being no Latin scholar, I had to search for the translation, but the form seems to be a requiem for the dying earth. A nice addition but totally lost on me until I Googled each heading. The conclusion sent shivers up my spine when I first read it and the same sensation was felt when I read it again. It's a haunting read when you know there's a sequel: Anvil of Stars.  

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