Sundays feel like good days for book reviews. Today, one of my top 20 reads of all time, Greg Bear's "Songs of Earth and Power". The premise here is that many unexplained phenomena on Earth (i.e. the placebo effect, strange disappearances, ghosts) can be explained by the existence of an alternate parallel world ("The Realm" where the elf-like Sidhe live) which connects at various odd points to our own. The connection between the worlds grows stronger when "songs of power" are performed, and an old composer who has discovered this secret leaves behind some clues for a young man (Michael) to follow in his footsteps.
In the first part, Michael finds his way to the Realm but has no way to return, so he is taught survival skills there by some sympathetic friends, and he is taught about the links between the worlds. Eventually, Michael learns how to return on his own, but in the process of doing so, he becomes involved in a story that involves the possible undoing of both worlds. So when Michael returns as a skilled mage, he has to work in our world to merge the two worlds and try to handle the consequences. That's probably a much worse summary than this fine story deserves, but I'm no author myself.
Anyway, this was the first thing I ever read by Bear. Bear is a hard science fiction author, and that shows through here, even though it is a fantasy (Bear goes into the nitty gritty of just how "magic" works in our world, for example). This was originally released as two books, "The Infinity Concerto" and "The Serpent Mage", but it was republished later when Bear got a lot more popular into the omnibus "Songs of Earth and Power".
Another of Bear's books I want to mention is "The Forge of God", an end-of-the-world story that has a much more interesting premise than most. The basic idea is that scientists make some weird discoveries around Earth and piece together the fact that someone or something has dropped a mini-black hole into the Earth (similar to the plot from David Brin's "Earth"), which will cause the whole planet to disintegrate within a few months. About the same time, we make first contact with a couple of alien races, one of which tells us they are here to help us out of our fix because we've been targetted for elimination by the other species, which is trying to stake a claim to our solar system.
What I liked most about this was the way the discoveries were first made. For me, a good science fiction novel starts in the present or near future and makes little, plausible steps one-by-one into something competely nuts, carrying me along for the ride. This one does it. Without spoiling it too much, I will just suffice to say that the ending was quite vivid, well-written, and pretty damned depressing. I don't like sad endings, myself, but there you have it.
The sequel, "Anvil of Stars" poses a very interesting ethical dilemma. Basically, the benevolent aliens from the first book offer some kids from Earth the chance to avenge the attack on the Earth. They pack these kids aboard a death-dealing spaceship bound for the home system of the attackers. It's a long "Lord of the Flies" journey during which the kids grow into adults. Due to relativistic effects, by the time the kids get there, the attacking aliens have evolved out of that phase or had a civil war or something and are now basically benevolent and wonderful (and scared to death of the retribution that they know is coming) ... so what should the crew do?
It's the kind of ethical dilemma you can really only get in science fiction, though I know there are parallels in classical literature (villains who get amnesia and turn nice, so what to do with them). Unfortunately, Bear does a poor job of it. I was impatient with this novel, and I really didn't want to read hundreds of pages about the society of kids that grows up on the spaceship. In retrospect, I wish I had just read the first book and let it be. I read the second book partly because I would've liked a happier ending to the whole tale.
I've found most of Bear's SF to be so-so, like "Forge of God". Not bad, but nothing memorable that I would enthusiastically recommend (among the books I've read are "Queen of Angels", "Eon" and its sequel "Eternity", "Blood Music", "Hegira", "Moving Mars", "Heads" and "Darwin's Radio"). Bear has a knack for coming up with really cool ideas (especially "Eon", "Blood Music" and "Hegira"), but then he can't do enough with them to keep me really happy. Just happy enough to give him one more try the next time.Posted by Observer at July 4, 2004 08:47 AM
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