Science Fiction Though the Decades

Saturday, April 21, 2012

1992: Benefactors 2 - Anvil of Stars (Bear, Greg)

A structural antithesis to The Forge of God (4/5)

Anvil of Stars is the second of two books in the Benefactor duology and is written differently in many ways that its precursor The Forge of God. Almost bordering on being an antithesis of the prior novel, Anvil of Stars exhibits Bear's skill at not only building up wondrous technologies, but also structuring a future human society, a new branch of mathematics, and an ingenious alien species. But honestly, it's the technology that steals the show--technologies stemming from those in Forge of God--and drives the reader into second guessing the capabilities of the Benefactors and the Killers.

Rear cover synopsis:
"82 young people travel the enormity of space on a quest for war and vengeance against The Planet Eaters: aliens who turned into earth--and all but a fragment of humanity--into a smouldering cinder. But how do you conduct war against aliens whose psychology is unknowable, whose technological brilliance means they can disguise whole planetary systems? ANVIL OF STARS has astonishing power. Its epic voyage is shot through with love, self conflict, the terror of war and the infinite possibilities of the universe. Driven by a godly sense of wonder and using quantum mechanics and particle physics to dazzling effect, this book is quite simply everything you ever wanted SF to be."

Aboard a Ship of the Law, a small slice of humanity--young volunteers around 20 years of age--are amid the stars in search for the Killer's home star so that they may carry out The Law. Hundreds of light-years from their own home star, the young post-human crew of eighty-two are led by the elected "Pan" Martin Spruce (aka Martin Gordon, son of Forge of God's Arthur Gordon) and his second-in-command "Christopher Robin" named Hans Eagle. The democratic leader of the boys--named Lost Boys and dressed in red--and the girls--named Wendys and dressed in blue--is consulted by the Moms, who are extensions of the ship's mind. Acting as social climate gauge, mediator, and war counselor, Martin is a empathetic yet indecisive individual who follows his heart than his gut.

The Dawn Treader's crew's first discovery of the possible home star of the Killers turns out to be in a tri-star system, the first system to be investigated by democratic vote is the Wormwoodstar. When the Dawn Treader splits into two, Martin leads the slower in-system ship while Hans leads the faster out-system ship. Upon the unanimous decision to decimate the uninhabited and undefended planets, the bombship crew begin their attack, only to be subjected to the wrath of impossibly destructive weapons. Martin's lover, Theresa, is among the victims and the crew themselves are forced into cryogenic hibernation.

A decade after the defeat and no day older, Martin awakes among his crew still heartbroken over the loss of his lover. His humility gets the best of his as he resigns from Pan. Hans gets the nod to become the new Pan, but vows to become a war leader and to fully enact The Law; a subtle snub towards the actions and attitudes of Martin. The ship's library once depleted due to the actions around Wormwood, the volume increases with the discovery of another derelict Benefactor ship and exponentially so when the ship merges with another Benefactor alien species--the Brothers, a "colonial intelligence" with braid-like structure. The three libraries display contrasting data regarding the civilization around one of the others stars in the tri-star system--Leviathan.

The braids and the humans enter the system under subterfuge in order to elicit the appropriate response from the suspected Killer-inhabited star. Will the level of technology or the trillions of citizens in the system deter the Ship of the Law from doing The Job? Will Hans be the social glue to meld the crew together or will a human rogue drive them apart, rendering the entire crew unable to enact The Law?

A certain amount of back history should be spelled out, which would be a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read The Forge of God. After earth's destruction and a breeding stock of humanity aboard arks, the people were put into hibernation and woken up more than 500 years later, able to colonize Mars, which the Benefactors had been able to terraform with ice from the missing moon Europa. While in hibernation the humans were improved, altering their brain performance and social habits. The children, too, were improved in hibernation and, while aboard their Ship of the Law, they are able to conceptualize high mathematics which the Moms taught, called Mom's Arithmetic Math or "momerath" for short. Their social structure, too, is freed up with disbanding the sacrament of marriage in favor of casual "slicking" and pair bonding. This social structure is one of the most interesting inclusions in Anvil of Stars: it sets the atmosphere with occasions of harmonious crests and derisive troughs.

Unlike The Forge of God (written in nine parts with 74 chapters), Anvil of Stars is simply written in three parts without any chapter divisions. This is only ONE of the great differences between the two. Many of the 82 crew aboard the Dawn Treader are named throughout the book, but only a dozen or so play a major role in the plot's development. Later in the book with the introduction of the braided aliens, a handful of aliens will also play roles in shifting the plot along its fateful route. This differs from The Forge of God where a very large cast played numerous roles through a long passage of time, displaying emotions which reflect the urgency of the tide of ebb of circumstances which surround them. Anvil of Stars doesn't shift perspective nearly as much as its precursor did.

I said above that the technologies shadow mostly everything else in Anvil of Stars. This has its pros and cons. The reader is introduced to the Benefactors' capabilities in the first battle, but the crew are always skeptical about the Moms' divulging of the complete and honest truth: the history of the Benefactors, other missions to the same star, other weapons that could be made, other alien species, etc. Their distrust grows when they assume the mass of information from the library of the braids. They begin to wonder if the Benefactors trust the braids more than humans: that trust being judged on the amount of information they were given. However, the Moms keep mum about the divvying of data and recite their mantra of, "We provide the tools. You use them." (70) This distrust drives an ethical stake between themselves, their alien Brothers, and even with the Benefactors. Could Bear being pressing this issue for the sake of good literary drama, or expressing the characters' emotions to bring out their truly human side?

One thing that stuck with me for six years, after reading this for the first time, is Bear's creation of the alien species known was the Brothers. These intelligent aggregate aliens are braid-like in structure, composed of unintelligent cords, communicate with a cornucopia of scents and an aural sounds like stringed instruments. They are able to produce human language through this "stringed instrument" means and are altogether just as curious about the one-bodied humans as the humans are about the aggregate braids. The level of violence humans are capable of through their works of fiction astonishes the peace-loving braids, whose component cords are the ones to breed, relax, and war. When actual violence is experiences aboard the merged ships, the braids become leery of an extended campaign with their human Brothers. Being a "colonial intelligence," their system of math is based on fractions and probability rather than decimals and whole numbers. The "smears" which are prevalent in their math wows some of the mathematical minds among the humans and allows for a pathway to mutual trust and intercultural development.

Of minor issue but of major annoyance is the number of misspellings in my edition of Anvil of Stars (Legend, 1993). I only started counting after the first few misspellings, but here is a sample of the mistakes I came across: gong (going), trogan (trojan), millin (million), and form (from). Authors' mistake or publisher's mistake, it's frustrating for the reader to come across these errors when they SHOULD have been easily picked up by any reputable proofreader.

Regardless of the minor typographical errors, Anvil of Stars is a abrupt shift for a sequel from The Forge of God. It's not a bad shift; merely a shift which is both jarring and intriguing. I believe Bear once had plans to produce a trilogy of sorts (a seem to have a memory of that, but I could be wrong) set in the same universe, but considering that Anvil of Stars was published twenty years ago, I'd say that the follow-up novel will never come to light. However, with that said, I'd love to see how Greg Bear could envision his future Martian and Venusian post-human colonies... instead, he's sold-out and now writes novelizations for the Halo game universe.

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