Monday, May 12, 2008

Wheelers - a review

Wheelers by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Wheelers isn't a novel, exactly. It's an example of a current school of SF that proselytizes for secular humanism, doing a tour of duty as a missionary for the brotherhood of all genetic material and the beauty of civilization.

That said, Wheelers delivers the plot of a summer blockbuster movie, complete with humongous explosions, intrigue and way cool aliens. Set in a middling far future after an anti-technology fueled war leaves the Earth under populated, Earth is divided into two camps: The Ectopians, a green United Nations, who manage the earth's resources very strictly, and Free China, which resembles Imperial China in it's isolationism and class structure. The solar system is colonized by Zen Buddhist monks who mine the asteroids and the moon because they're really the only people who can handle the isolation.

Into this setting comes the near ubiquitous killer comet that seems to infest the last few years worth of science fiction movies and novels. The twist on this is that the comet doesn't start out as a killer. It starts out heading for Jupiter, and becomes a killer after an unidentified force rearranges the moons of Jupiter in such a fashion that the comet is redirected at Earth.

Is it an act of war? But by whom? There's no life on Jupiter! And why? What did we ever do to them?

Resolving these questions becomes the gist of the novel, and the questions unfold at the end into a vast reminder of how small the place of humanity in the universe is. That's how I like my science fiction, bold and sloppy and rich with context, specifically the context of a very small Earth in a much larger universe.

The first mystery concerns what life on Jupiter is like, and is mostly revealed from the perspective of the aliens themselves. This is deftly handled. In some ways more so than the human characters are.

Beginning "The cities were feeding. Deep beneath Secondhome's multicolored canopy they cruised, sucking up aeroplankton by the billions..." the authors introduce you to Bright Halfholder, a member of an illegal faction that skydives between floating cities in defiance of her eons old elders.

Halfholder's perspective deftly draws a picture of culture that evolved floating in the subzero cloud layers of a gas giant. Halfholder's people are living blimps with water ice for eyes. They grow their own cities from other Jovian creatures. Their technology is an evolutionary byproduct of excretion: using the minerals that they sieve out of the atmosphere, they create the semi-intelligent bio-robots that earthlings come to call wheelers.

More interesting is the time scale that the culture lives on: they are millions of years old, nearly immortal except for accident. They have evolved a bureaucracy to match, one for which the word "haste" is a curse and a thousand years is a short time in which to make a decision.

I myself work in such a bureaucracy right now, and taking a thousand years to make a decision doesn't seem so science fictional to me. It becomes a problem, however, as the comet that the Jovians diverted towards earth gets closer and closer... and the Jovians keep talking about whether they should stop it from hitting "Poisonblue."

Which is where the second question of the story comes in. How do we stop the comet? Why, by diplomacy! The earth sends a ship full of belter Buddhists and earthlings to find the aliens and ask them, pretty please, not to hurl the comet at earth.

The diplomatic attempt is deftly interwoven with a polemic about risk taking. For instance, without Bright Halfholder's courageous skydiving, humans wouldn't have contacted the Jovians in time.

Similarly, although the diplomats from earth have the government's resources and backing, they are too cautious to take the risks that are needed to solve the situation.

Among the earth diplomats are Prudence Odingo and Charles Dunsmoore. They are old enemies because Charles ruined Prudence's career in archeology by seizing credit for a discovery that she made.

Charles is a career bureaucrat, Prudence a seat of her pants, interplanetary curiosities trader. He's the head of the diplomatic mission, she wants to profit from the situation by contacting the aliens first.

In the end, it's her intuition that results in first contact, despite all the careful preparations of the diplomatic mission. More happenstance than purpose.

This focus on the value of rugged individualism over tradition is one of the main points of the secular human polemic, anyway. Chaos is the fabric of the universe, and humanity has to make its own luck. Religion is always noted with bemusement and curiosity. What good is it to wait passively for salvation, when you can actually engineer it?

Of course, Wheelers isn't above replacing religion with its own metaphysical flourishes. Moses Odingo, Prudence's nephew, has a facility with animal languages that borders on St. Augustine's, and this ability to decipher the "language of life" translates over to the Jovians.

His freak ability is definitely part of the right place/right time that saves earth from certain destruction, allowing humans to avoid an otherwise torturous effort to translate alien languages in the Nth hours of the crises. What's more, the authors don't even attempt to offer a scientific explanation for it.

The drawback of the SF tract as a subgenre is that characterization is often given short shrift. Characters often represent values in an almost allegorical way. Bright Halfholder is "compassion." Prudence is "intuition." Charles is "tradition." Moses is "biodiversity."

As a semiliterate lit jock, an uneasy looter of the ivory tower, I like my characters to be a bit more nuanced. The authors shirk that novelistic duty to a certain extent, unfolding character development by telling you that it happens. Charles evolves from a sleazy, self promoting career bureaucrat to a guy truly concerned about the welfare of the planet in the space of a few pages because the authors tell you that he thought about his misdeeds a lot on the two year journey from Earth to Europa. Also, Prudence's "wild" personality is delivered in such broad strokes that she seems more attention deficit than unorthodox.

In addition, the earth-culture that's left after the anti-tech war is largely undetailed, used only for ideas to be bounced off of. On the broad concept of Ecotopia and Free China are hung the illegal hunting of protected species and vast poverty that put Moses Odingo in peril for most of his life.

These scenes are largely peripheral to the plot, though entertaining: Xi Ming-Kuo, the Chinese warlord responsible for many of Moses' problems, gets killed in a cleverly amusing way at the end of the novel, and Moses as king-of-the-wild-dogs-and-
cannibal-street-urchins is a fun bit of baroque, a sort of Barbarella cum Where The Wild Things Are fluff. You are left with the sense that the narrative is being padded, but the padding is entertaining and moves quickly, so you don't ultimately mind.

Missteps aside, Wheelers has a big heart and some smart sounding science to back up its wild plot. It delivers a host of clever thought experiments in a colorful package, and ends with spaceships being spattered by molten lava, daring rescues, and moons hurtling out of their orbits. So you probably won't mind the missteps. I really didn't.



This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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