Read for the Apocalypse 2019 Reading Challenge.
Method of the world’s destruction: Unknown aliens using a combination of self-replicating nuclear explosions to shatter the Earth’s crust at the tectonic faults, while superdense compressed matter and anti-matter come together at the Earth’s core to disintegrate the planet. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but it’s got to be the absolutely coolest apocalypse I’ve ever read.)
My partner Jamie has been recommending this book to me for literally years. I wanted to save it and its sequel, Anvil of Stars, for when I was reading for an apocalypse challenge and a space opera challenge at the same time (because the sequel is a space opera.) That opportunity came when I decided to jump into a new apocalyptic-fiction challenge and a space opera challenge on Worlds Without End.
I wondered at the range of ratings I saw for this book on Goodreads – everything from a one-star to a five-star rating. “2/3rds of the book was a trip through the paranoid 80s as everyone ran around and did nothing,” said one review. “A boring apocalypse,” said another. “400 pages spent doing what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did in the book’s beginning,” said a third. “Flat, undeveloped characters,” said a fourth.
I strongly disagree with all of this! I think this is flat-out one of the best books of apocalyptic literature I’ve ever read – and I have read quite a few.
I wondered what it was that differentiated the people who loved it and the ones who hated it. Perhaps those who hate it don’t like science fiction much?
There’s an argument for that, because there’s a lot of science, especially geology, physics, astrophysics, theoretical physics, and biology, involved in this book. Maybe people just couldn’t follow it, I thought, because Bear in his wisdom does not coddle his readers. He expects you to keep up.
Or maybe people didn’t like the idea of the world running around, chasing its tail, instead of facing the direct existential threat as an organized force. Well . . . that’s human. The cast of Game of Thrones ran around doing that for seven seasons. We’re doing it now in the face of the threat of global climate change.
Like with A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many viewpoint characters in this book, presented in tight third person personal. We only get to see what happened if a character saw it; we only understand what’s going on if a character understands it. Like with A Song of Ice and Fire, the plot is complex.
At the beginning of the book, rock formations, large ones, suddenly appear in places where they have never been on any map before. The first one is noticed in Australia’s desert, the second in Death Valley. Remote areas. More follow later.
The geologists who happen upon the one in Death Valley call the Air Force to report that a MiG has gone down, knowing they won’t believe, over the phone, what has really happened; they have discovered a weak, possibly dying, alien creature near the formation. It speaks perfect English but doesn’t necessarily understand every concept presented to it. They and the alien are taken into custody (and quarantine.) The American government decides to keep a tight lid on the alien presence so as to not panic the public, until they have more information.
The alien tells them that it has traveled with the formation, which is actually a disguised spacecraft, to warn the Earth. It says its people, its world, were destroyed by the aliens who have landed, and it has come in the hopes that the Earth could prepare itself to fight back. But now that it is here, it realizes that we lack the technology to do so, and there is no hope.
In the meantime, the Australians have been visited by robots with a pleasing, friendly shape, who are telling them that the aliens have come to help us, offering us technology and to bring world peace.
Who do we believe?
The President of the United States asks the alien if it believes in God. “I believe in punishment,” it says before it dies. That leads the President to believe that the End of Days as described in the Bible are here. When he is re-elected to a second term, he announces this almost right away. He forbids any counterstrike on the aliens.
The American team assigned to work on it (dated in the distinct absence of women and lacking even a token Person of Colour – well, this was written in the 80s) share their information with the Australian team and confront their aliens with questions about what the American visitor has said. The Australian aliens are promptly destroyed – or destroy themselves.
Why? What happened? We don’t know. Is it a ruse? Are there two alien factions, one benevolent and the other malignant? Again, who do we believe?
To make things more complicated, the alien is autopsied, and there is evidence that it, too, was artificially created.
Confusion results. Are there any aliens among the Russians or Chinese? Again, we don’t know, because in Bear’s future, the Cold War still exists and no information is exchanged across the Iron Curtain.
Not long after, a strange unidentified flying object is seen over the Atlantic Ocean by a boat of oceanographers who are charting seismic activity under the ocean floor. Strange seismic readings start appearing on their graphs immediately after. Other scientists in the field elsewhere in the world notice the same things.
Then something even weirder happens. It turns out that while they are as mysterious and opaque as the aliens who have arrived, Earth may have a benefactor. I can’t tell you anything else that won’t be an enormous spoiler. I may have given you too much information already.
In a way, I can understand the confusion, because this book is almost three different books in one. The first is a first contact story like The Arrival: Why are the aliens here? How do we know what they really intend? The second is a scientific thriller like The Day After Tomorrow: What’s going on? Can we discover enough about it with science that we can do something about it before it’s too late? The third is the true apocalypse story, with a race against time to preserve what of Earth can be preserved before the end arrives.
The ending of this story is beautiful and horrible and poignant. It’s weep-worthy. I was riveted from start to finish. And in this I found what I believe to be the answer to the question: why did some people love this so much, while others obviously hated it and couldn’t understand its point?
I think the answer might be that the people who hated it have never had to confront their own mortality. Much of this story is about how people die when they know they are going to. You can’t stop it, you barely understand it, you get sad and angry and you want to understand why. And there are no real answers to that question. But in the end, you either go raging into the dying of the light, or you come to a place of acceptance – but either way, nothing you can do will stave off the inevitable.
I thought the characters were flat and undeveloped at the beginning of the book too. I thought Greg Bear was an “idea guy,” like Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. But I underestimated him. By the end of the book, all of the characters, whether they have survived or not, have undergone profound, dare I say “earth-shattering,” changes.
There are some distinct flaws in the book. It’s a bit dated. The Cold War has been projected into a 1990s without the internet and where 1980s ideas about gender still exist. It’s notable that there are no women on the investigatory team of experts, even when one of the major characters is a sociologist married to one of the physicists on the team. I mean, you’re talking to aliens and trying to discern their motivations, and you have not one sociologist or psychologist on the team? Are you insane?!
But all in all, it’s a study of human nature, and philosophy, and existential angst, as powerful on an emotional level as any of the great works of Ursula K. Le Guin – and it is brilliant. I can’t recommend it enough!