Classic Review: Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear

It is not too often that a sequel outshines its predecessor, but Anvil of Stars does it with style and aplomb.  It is expansive, imaginative and still very human.  It presents questions of morality and revenge, features believable character development and operates just as well on the micro scale of a small, isolated community, as on the macro scale of solar systems with trillions of sentient beings.  It introduces realistic warfare with powers beyond the imagination of most people.  The book is also very dark and disturbing, and it will stay on my mind for a long time.

The story takes place several years after the destruction of Earth by an advanced civilization and its autonomous clones.  These several years are subjective to Martin and his crew who travel at near light speed in search of the perpetrators, to exact their revenge.  Martin is the son of Arthur Gordon, one of the main protagonists of The Forge of God.  He, as well as other children, were selected to witness the ultimate destruction of Earth, as a preparation for their mission to serve the Law (which states that civilizations that use automated machines to destroy others must themselves be destroyed).  The mission is orchestrated by the Benefactors, a hidden race or races of advanced beings, who help the less fortunate races to escape their destruction and punish those responsible.  The survivors, however, must be those who press the trigger, as a way to distinguish the Benefactors from the Killers.

Martin and others begin their journey as children and form a society modeled after the story of Peter Pan, but with strong undertones from Lord of the Flies.  As they grow up and are educated by robotic representations of the Benefactors, they form a loose and dynamic network of intimate relationships, which adds some fluidity to their little society.  Martin is elected Pan, the leader of the group, as they search for the Killers.  With the help of advanced technology and a new way of mathematical thinking that they are taught by the Benefactors, they find a solar system that appears to belong to the Killers but seems to be abandoned, but when they try to destroy it, they fly into a trap that results in several casualties – made much worse thanks to the complex network of personal relationships – and nearly destroys their ship.

Martin resigns, and Hans is elected as the new Pan.  Where Martin was thoughtful and deliberate, Hans is single-minded and forceful, which is perceived as the best combination for a war leader.  However, the children (who may be childish only in emotions at this stage) are used to making all crucial decisions together, and alternate leaders fostering schisms in the group, emerge.  The Humans soon join another group of aliens with the same goal in mind, but these aliens are even more deliberate and pacifistic.  Together, they move on to the next solar system, which is full of very diverse life and a multitude of sentient races.  These races were engineered by the Killers, but none appears to know where the Killers had gone.  Martin with a small crew are sent to their central planet as a decoy, to gather information and stall the enemies while the rest evaluates whether this is the system that deserves to be destroyed.  Unbeknownst to Martin, Hans is already readying the attack, which comes suddenly and with a deadly force, and Martin’s crew barely escapes with their lives.  Hans is sacked as the Pan, and the new Pan leads the task to find a planet for the group to settle on, since their task is completed.

The primary reason why this book didn’t fall into the usual trap for sequels is that it’s not offering more of the same, from an established universe.  Where The Forge of God took place on Earth and was largely an accounting of a slow but inevitable destruction of the planet, along with personal stories of survivors and those who perished in the apocalypse, Anvil of Stars sees the humans play an active role, in a spaceship, light years away from the rest of the civilization.  Bear can establish entirely new worldbuilding rules.  And boy, does he deliver…  The scale of the worldbuilding is one of the largest I’ve seen in science fiction, on par with the earlier Culture series by Banks and the latter works by Alastair Reynolds.  Solar systems are engineered, planets are built from scratch, stars are set to go nova on command.  All this is tied together by a technology, which can reprogram particles of matter to behave like a different type of particles.  This is illustrated by creating “fake matter”, which is used to build ships and change their shape.  The most inventive use of this technology, however, is when the Killers change the nature of some of the human fighter ships to antimatter, without the humans realizing this.  As the ships come to contact with the regular matter of their mothership, spectacular fireworks ensue.

The technology is explained in a believable manner, and even I, with my basic understanding of physics (or maybe because my understanding was so basic), could grasp the concept and become convinced that that it was plausible.  The same meticulous attention was given to the human interactions.  Bear juggles a handful of characters he pays close attention to, and carefully develops and modifies their psychology based on external and internal (hallucination-induced) factors.  Characters change in believable ways.  And while Martin is the protagonist through whose eyes we view the story, Hans follows the most fascinating character growth.  As with the physics, all personal development and changes are entirely plausible.

Despite all the dazzle of describing alien societies and technologies, and the battles that are over before the reader or even the story’s characters realize, the main focus of the story lies with the questions of morality, of where punishment crosses the line to revenge, and how many innocent lives can be destroyed before they become one too many.  And whether there are any innocent lives…  Here, Bear falls into the trap of portraying humanity as irredeemably violent and incapable of changing.  This is also my only criticism of the book: this theme is so played out that it’s become boring.  Bear is further underscoring the violent tendencies of humanity by contrasting it with the pacifism of the aliens who join the humans in the second half of the book.  Despite looking really alien and scary, they have a much deeper seeded compassion for others, to the point of willing to letting be destroyed by their enemies.  In addition, the Benefactors are limiting access to knowledge and obfuscating any information about themselves, lest humanity evolves to a point where they’d be able to challenge and destroy them.

Ultimately, the moral questions are not answered.  Individual lives are altered or even destroyed by making choices that others deem immoral, but the overall question, whether it was worth destroying trillions of sentient lives to punish the Killers who may not be among them, and whether it actually made any difference in the overall scale of things, remains open.  It is also unclear whether the Benefactors were the good guys, or yet another race of beings that manipulated others to do their dirty work.  On one hand, I’d like to see some resolution to these questions, but on the other I’m glad I have something to think about.

I found Anvil of Stars to be superbly written and choke full of ideas at an awe-inspiring scale.  The sheer inventiveness of the universe and technology took my breath away.  The author paid close attention to polish the story until every aspect of it was believable, and he left just enough out for the reader to come to their own conclusions.  If the quality of a story was measured by the quality of on-line discussions about the ending, this novel would place very high.  Anvil of Stars should be in the library of every serious science fiction fan.

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