Book review: The Forge of God by Greg Bear

The Forge of God is one of the most depressing science fiction books I’ve ever read.  It is apocalyptic in a way a Hollywood movie could never replicate: even though the story takes place on a global scale, the very deep and personal insights into how individuals are dealing with the crisis threatened to tear my heart out.  The plot may not always make sense, but the individual stories of the protagonists sound very believable.  And often very depressing.

The book starts in the Nevada desert, where a group of geologists on a camping trip discover a disguised spaceship, with a dying alien.  They manage to alert a local military base, where the geologists are placed into quarantine and the alien is nursed back to life, or at least has its dying process slowed down.  The alien came to warn the Earth of an incoming doom, which will destroy the planet.  The US President creates a scientific task force, led by Arthur Gordon, to interview the alien and investigate similar otherworldly occurrences elsewhere.  Apparently, Australia had also been visited by aliens, albeit a different group, and the Jovian moon Europa had gone missing.

When the President finally shows up to talk to the alien, he gets shaken to the core and ends up mentally unhinged.  He begins to believe that there is nothing that can be done to save the Earth, isolates himself from everyone including his task force and even his wife, and in a broadcast declares the end of the world.  This results in a long impeachment process, which causes him to dig in even further, frustrating the efforts of his advisors to resolve the crisis.

The book follows the paths of several people.  Arthur Gordon and his friend Harry Feinman are trying to figure out what is actually going on and how the aliens are planning to destroy the Earth.  The young geologists are being slowly driven mad by their isolation in the military base, and once they are released they find out their lives had effectively been destroyed.  A former science journalist turned science fiction writer has the ability to put scientific language into a human readable format.  He first advises the President, only to be later shut out as well and ending up as an agent for another group of aliens.  Apparently, there is a separate group, bent on saving as much human knowledge as possible.  They appear as self-replicating mechanical spiders who can exert mind control over a person.  They use this ability to create a connected network of individuals who collect books and disks with knowledge, and some of whom are later selected to be rescued by spaceships that would depart before the destruction of the Earth.

The destruction itself is spectacular, and the book follows the last minutes and seconds of many of its protagonists.  It is also witnessed from outer space by the survivors, who are then put in artificial sleep, in order to be awakened centuries later when the benevolent aliens finish the terraforming of Mars.

What made the book stand out for me was the multitude of utterly authentic characters, with whom I established an emotional bond.  It wasn’t always a positive bond, either.  In some cases, like with the President, I felt partially sorry for him, as well as an overwhelming contempt.  But many other characters were more sympathetic.  The geologists became unwilling witnesses who had no influence over their lives once they did the right thing.  Arthur and his family – a wife and a son – became the tragic heroes.  Arthur had to witness his best friend, Harry, succumb to cancer, and later had to abandon his in-laws to save his family.  Other characters, ranging from scientists through army personnel to politicians, have their own background stories: personal tragedies or reasons to live a little longer.  And all of them feel the impending end.

The apocalyptic genre of Hollywood movies usually focuses on the action.  There are small glimpses on some individuals, but they come in short sparks, only to be forgotten.  For example, the strongest emotional moment in Armageddon comes when the protagonists are boarding their spaceship, a little boy is watching them on TV and yells to his mother that one of the astronauts is the sales guy who sometimes comes by.  She looks at the TV and tells the boy that it’s not a salesman, but his father.  The scene takes maybe three seconds, but to me is the most powerful few seconds in that movie.  The Forge of Gods is full of such moments, only they are drawn out for chapters.  Arthur and his wife struggle with how to shelter their young son, Martin, from the news.  At the end Martin surprises them when he figures it out on his own, but the preceding pages upon pages of dilemmas are difficult to read without emotion.  Harry, Arthur’s best friend, dies of cancer before the end, but his main worry until his death is to provide for his wife.  Arthur is unable to save her, which further adds to his – and the reader’s – anguish.  Two of the four geologists are watching the end unfold in Yosemite National Park, among a group of people who are resigned to their fate but want to end with grace.  Even the President is a tragic hero.  When he asks the alien whether he believes in God and hears the reply that the alien only believes in punishment, his psyche collapses.  Watching him deteriorate further is a depressing read.  Even so, I found it difficult to peel myself away from the book.  I prefer happy, light stories, but this novel was so well written that I could not stop reading.

As much as I liked the character development of the various protagonists, I can’t say the same about the plot.  To me, it left some serious holes.  First and foremost, the reader quickly learns that the alien discovered in the US, aliens in the Australian desert and a third ship in Russia, were all sent to deceive humanity.  All the while, the real attack happened almost undetected, and by the time the scientific community learned what was going on it wasn’t possible to stop the destruction of Earth, neither by humanity nor by the benevolent aliens.  In this case, I fail to understand why a deception was ever necessary.  The planet killers could have just attacked with the same result.  In addition, I felt that the ending was a little rushed.  There is suddenly a battle between the two groups of aliens, which is never fully explained.  The selection process of who would get saved is not described either, which is something I would appreciate, given how eclectic the group of saved individuals is.  Finally, the character of the President is very one-dimensional.  I can understand the appeal of a tragic hero who crumbles over the weight of his responsibility, but he is portrayed as all-powerful in the US, and able to control nearly everything during his lengthy impeachment process.  I feel that in real life, he would be deposed much quicker, with deadly force, if necessary.  Here, everyone is tiptoeing around him as if he had the power over life and death of the entire nation.

Despite these plot holes, The Forge of God is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read.  It describes a far-fetched apocalypse scenario in such a realistic, emotionally charged detail, that it’s difficult to put down.  You’ll likely end up exhausted from reading the novel, and it will stay with you for a long time.  I can highly recommend it to anyone looking for science fiction that feels more intimate than similar books of this scale.

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