Friday, 28 May 1999

Robert L. Forward: Starquake (1985)

Edition: New English Library, 1988
Review number: 260

Starquake and Dragon's Egg, the novel to which it forms a sequel, contain some of the most unusual aliens ever envisaged by a science fiction writer. Forward, with an engineering background, has written some of the most interesting 'hard' science fiction. This is a term used for strongly ideas based writing, using the latest scientific knowledge and incorporating a great deal of physics as accurately as possible.

Dragon's Egg contains all the interesting scientific background which is in the sequel: the carefully worked out microscopic processes and structures which make life on the surface of a neutron star - so dense atoms are crushed - not only possible but plausible. On the star (named Dragon's Egg because viewed from Earth it could be seen as an egg laid by the constellation Draco), the processes on which this life is based run far faster than the molecular chemistry which makes earth biology possible, with the result that lifeforms on the star evolve incredibly fast, in days rather than millions of years. So as a human spaceship orbits Dragon's Egg, they are able to observe the evolution of the chela from savagery to civilisation surpassing human knowledge.

Starquake contains effectively three stories: a rescue of the humans by the chela when the systems designed to protect them against the tidal effects caused by the star's massive gravity fail; then the humans help chela society revive after a massive star-quake destroys civilisation; finally, the chelas, again surpassing mankind, save the humans from death brought about by their overstay round the star to help the chela.

The problem with Starquake is that the interesting ideas are identical to ones in the first book; character has taken a back seat to the physics in both novels, with the result that there is little to build on here. The chela are not interesting as aliens in a psychological sense: there are no massive differences from human sociology or even earth biological systems (they are two-sexed egg-laying creatures) for the writer to explore.

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