Book review: Eon by Greg Bear

With plenty of suspense and action, and interesting and original ideas, Eon would be an above average book.  But with the amazing scale of its setting, the book is much more than above average.  It’s a great book, which may not have aged too well, but still instills a sense of wonder in the reader.  Unfortunately, it is awe that can only be explored from a high perspective.  Drilling down finds mainly empty characters with little individuality, to whom the reader does not develop any emotional attachment.

In the early years of the 21st century, a large asteroid slows down into an orbit around Earth.  Scientists quickly calculate that the asteroid is empty, and the US is first to land a team there to claim it for itself.  The explorers find several hollow chambers, filled with cities and artifacts that suggest that they were built by humans.  In the last chamber, they find the opening to a tunnel that extends way beyond the size of the asteroid.

Patricia is a brilliant mathematician and one of the scientists recruited to work in the Stone, as the Americans call the asteroid.  Garry Lanier, the local administrator, gives her full access to all resources on the Stone.  She finds libraries and books from human future, some of which describe a catastrophic nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union, after which the survivors built their habitats inside the asteroid and went to find a new habitable planet.  This nuclear war hasn’t happened yet, and the scientists studying the asteroid already realized that the Stone came from an alternate reality.  The description of the war is NATO’s most closely guarded secret, and politicians race to prevent a war in Patricia’s own universe.

They fail, and the USSR attacks the US.  At the same time, Soviet special forces invade the asteroid, but are brought to a stalemate.  During the fighting, Patricia is abducted by Olmy, a humanoid yet alien looking being.  It turns out that the original inhabitants of the Stone have constructed a city, which is traveling long the Way, the long tunnel from the last chamber.  The city is presently about a million kilometers away from the Stone.  Along the Way, the city has been opening doorways to other alternate universes and creating a trading empire with other cultures, human and alien.

Patricia and her captors are pursued by a group of four people from the stone, led by Lanier.  All five of them are interned in the main settlement, Axis City, where they become the pawns of complex political games between various factions.  Axis City is home to all kinds of people: traditionalists like Olmy, who keep their human bodies and embrace their past, people who completely change their bodies called Neomorphs, as well as virtual beings that inhabit the city’s databanks.  They all have their own goals, and the Stone’s reappearance in Earth’s orbit upended many of their plans for the future.  Axis City had been waging war against aliens inhabiting the Way, and is presently facing the most serious attack, when the aliens threaten to open a doorway into the center of a star, thus flooding the Way with plasma.  With Earth’s presence, however, it would be possible to abandon the Way once again and go into orbit around Earth.  Axis City is split into two.  One half is sped up to near speed of light, which pushes the plasma to the walls of the Way, sterilizing everything and fuse all doorways shut.  The other half returns to the Stone, which is then blown off the end of the way, and it, along with half of the city, orbit the devastated Earth.

While all other characters become mere spectators to the action around them, Patricia decides to find a universe that is close enough to her own, without the nuclear war.  Pressured by the incoming wall of plasma, she finds the appropriate location for a doorway, but emerges to an Earth that diverged from our history several thousand years ago.  The plasma fuses the doorway behind her, and she is stranded there.  The rest returns to Earth where they help the survivors in rebuilding the human society.

Eon is a high concept book, with focus on scale.  Naturally, the protagonists are never well developed.  They elicit about as much sympathy as furniture in a stage play.  If they are damaged, the reader may feel a little sorry for them, but not a concern.  Patricia is one of the exceptions: I found her eminently annoying.  She is way out of her depth, keeps doubting herself, and she is the only one not following any kind of scientific procedure to come to her conclusions.  She acts like a spoiled kid who occasionally goes into a trance-like stance and emerges with a breakthrough mathematical solution.  The only character that exhibits some kind of development is Lanier, when in a moment of weakness starts a relationship with one of the other scientists, and that’s when I took a liking to him.  Too bad that he serves only as an observer of the story, with very little agency.

The second problem I’ve had with the book was the political setting.  I am well aware that Eon has been written in the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, and nuclear exchange between the two superpowers was still a possibility, albeit faint.  However, I grew up in the communist bloc, and could not suspend my disbelief in several instances.  I liked the assertion that the growing technological gap between the US and USSR could prompt the Soviets to do something stupid, but much of the rest was inaccurate.  In the 80s, politruks, the political officers tasked with keeping up the morale of the troops and keep them in line with the communist doctrine were largely washed-out corrupt thugs who didn’t care about the doctrine.  To have three fanatical political officers in one army was laughable and entirely destroyed any suspension of disbelief I may have had.

Finally, I found the political intrigue in Axis City to be labyrinthine: too complex, and not adequately explained.  The history of various political factions was quite interesting, but their motivations remained largely a mystery, and Bear kept throwing too many names of various political figures at me.  To make matters more confusing, some of the politicians kept switching allegiances or revealing their true motives even before I got to understand their original pretense, and thus fully appreciate the switch they pulled.

Fortunately, the book more than compensates for the lack of personal touch with concepts.  The scale is enormous: large cities in a hollowed-out asteroid, a tunnel that is so wide and long that a city with tens of millions of inhabitants had traveled a million kilometers along it, indefinite number of parallel universes, aliens and technologies that would sound very inventive thirty or forty years ago, they all combine into a very compelling worldbuilding.  The detailed description of how to open a new doorway just hammers home the point of scale: a single millimeter along the infinite Way can open numerous very different universes.  You can never open the one you want; you can only live with the universe you opened.

Greg Bear is no stranger to well developed, compelling characters.  Not long after Eon, he wrote Forge of God and its sequel Anvil of Stars, both of which are a study of character development in the face of incomprehensible aliens and worldbuilding on a scale that is difficult to understand.  In Eon, the author consciously decided to focus on the sheer scale of things.  If you approach this book with that in mind, you won’t be disappointed: the worldbuilding is superb and wholly deserving all the praise it has garnered over more than three decades.  If you look for characters to bond with, however, look at some other books by Greg Bear.

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