Novel – Eon

UPDATE 2019-05-18: I found some other notes I’d lost under a pile of other TODOs and have revised this again with more critiques of specific details.

Branching out, I thought I’d share my thoughts on some non-fan fiction I’ve been reading:

Eon by Greg Bear

While it may seem ironic (If you’re not familiar with leanings of the user base) I was actually introduced to this novel in the comments to a My Little Pony crossover named The Long Trot. (A sadly far-too-incomplete crossover with Pratchett and Baxter’s The Long Earth, which has also been added to my “to read” list.)

The basic plot is that, in the year 2000, in a timeline where the Soviet Union never fell (the book was written in 1985), an asteroid appears from a flash of light in the outer solar system and manoeuvres itself into orbit. When we go up to investigate it, we find that it’s been hollowed out into multiple chambers, containing two abandoned cities, machinery to keep it habitable… and a rearmost chamber that stretches on into infinity. A pocket universe unto itself. (later revealed to be known as “The Way”)

As a teaser, I’ll quote the ending of the fourth chapter, given that none of this is a spoiler, being summarized on the back-cover synopsis:

The Stanford professor, six years before, had been wrong. Someone besides extraterrestials and gods could appreciate her work. She now knew why she had been brought up from Vandenberg, carried to the Stone by shuttle and OTV.

The asteroid was longer on the inside than it was on the outside.

The seventh chamber went on forever.

The main character who the story initially follows, and the subject of that quote, is Patricia Luisa Vasquez, a physicist who’s brought in on the top-secret project to study “The Stone” after it’s discovered that it came from a possible future in which Russia touched off a nuclear world war… and, if not prevented, it’s only weeks away.

That said, I don’t want you to think that it’s some kind of political thriller. The story’s central focus is very much one of mystery, focused heavily on the question of what the infinite seventh chamber is and how it was built, with a chapter every so often switching to the perspective of a character from the civilization that built the Stone who is secretly investigating the main cast.

It actually reminds me of my experiences playing the PC game adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, then moving on to reading Rama Revealed (the last in the series) at my high school library.

My biggest problem with the story is that it gave me a strong sense of being slow to start. While it wasn’t as bad as Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (which felt like a soap opera in space for almost the entire story, but I didn’t care about the characters), the first act felt dull to me. It wasn’t until the later acts (specifically, starting with Chapter 21) that things started to pick up and shift from focusing on characters I didn’t care enough about to actually exploring The Way and the futuristic humans who live in a city far down its length.

I would really have preferred something more like Larry Niven’s Ringworld or Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the primary focus is on exploring this wondrous place they’ve discovered or, at the very least, a synopsis which warned me that it would spend so much focus on the mundane aspects of things for so long. (Properly representative synopses are, sadly, a greatly under-appreciated skill. When I read David Brin’s Sundiver, I glossed through pretty much the entire book before I realized that the politics were actually the focus of the plot, rather than just a slow start to the plot I actually wanted to read about the mystery of the “sun-ghosts”.)

That said, around the same time that it started to pick up, it also seemed to get a little more philosophical (or at least more focused on the philosophical elements) and that made it more enjoyable in the vein I was intended to be enjoying it via, as opposed to the one I’d expected… so it’s still not clear to me whether the story was focused on things I didn’t care about or just a slow-starter regardless of who’s reading it. Given that I also found the action-related elements more engaging after chapter 21 and the exploratory elements picked up too, I’m leaning toward “this story just took far too long to wind up”.

In support of that assessment, I found chapter 57 boring in a “throwback to the first act” sort of way, but chapter 58 had some philosophical elements which made me wish the whole story had more of a philosophical bent.

It wouldn’t surprise me if I draw some flak for saying this about such a lauded author, but I get the impression that Greg Bear needed a more assertive editor. Someone who could hold him to that principle of “Make an accurate first impression.” (Which many authors have stated in the more prone-to-misinterpretation form, “Start right into the action.”) As-is, the first twenty chapters feel so different (and so much less engaging) that it’s almost like it was meant to be two different books. (Similar to how Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series has at least half a dozen different novels following different people at the same momentous time.)

To be honest, it reminds me of the behaviour I had to be trained out of as a kid, where I’d try to front-load every ancillary detail before I’d given the listener a reason to care in order to try to dump my entire mindstate into the other person’s head before I started my “pitch”. Because there was no relevance given when they were initially introduced, later chapters left me engaged enough to appreciate the significance of various questions being raised, and I knew I’d been given the answers to them, but I didn’t care enough to go back and refresh my memory of what they were now that I knew they were relevant after all.

I also think that it doesn’t age as well as it could have, given what a classic idea it is. The most glaring example of that is details like the names of the factions among the future humans (Geshels and Naderites). I was born the same year this book was written and I only have a very vague idea of who Ralph Nader is and what made him important. That will only get worse as time passes. (However, the commentary on how China might overtake NATO and the Soviet Union in a couple of generations is prescient.)

It’s similar to how, in the 20th Anniversary Edition of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, he says that his one regret was mentioning the sound of typewriter keys or how the part of some works of fanfiction that has aged the most glaringly is to mention MySpace. One can never be sure how well something will age until after its time has passed, so we should strive to not tempt fate in our cultural references. (A good rule of thumb is to speak in generalities and fictional names. “Social network” rather than “MySpace”, for example.)

Not aging well may also be part of the problem with the synopsis. It mentions a war breaking out on Earth as a result, but it didn’t really hit me that such a war would involve a nuclear exchange, so the synopsis seemed underwhelming. That could just be because it was written in 1985, before the Cold War ended, and I’m reading it in 2019.

Now for specific things Bear got right. I could be wrong, but it seemed that the story only started to switch between the different facets and factions of the story within chapters (rather than at the chapter breaks) when things started to come to a head. I found that to be a very clever way to manage the pacing.

I also found it very satisfying that, in the end, The Way becomes self-sustaining and I wish the creative world-building from chapter 62 could have been more prevalent earlier on.

That said, maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but dwell on the bittersweet elements of the climactic ending (starting in chapter 64). I know there are poetic parallels between The Death and the changes to The Way, but, for me, what’s lost with The Way sours the sense of hope for the future. (For all that I hate change I didn’t initiate, I’d certainly be a Geshel. I’ve always been the type who sees films like Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky as not having a proper happy ending because they imply that the ancient lost tech was destroyed beyond studying and, if the scientists and researchers in the setting are going to re-create it, they’ll have to do it from scratch.)

Still, the title drop in epilogue 3 does help to make the ending satisfying. I didn’t watch Babylon 5 as a kid, but it reminds me of a synopsis I read of the ending to it. (To the point where I wonder if J. Michael Straczynski might have read Eon and was drawing a little inspiration from it.)

That said, epilogue 4 left too much of a “sequel hook” feeling. There’s nothing wrong with a sequel hook, but this one left things feeling unresolved in a way that reminds me more of Diana Wynne Jones’s decision to not include epilogues in Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin or, as I’ll blog about in the near future, John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

(It’s a little snide, but it left with the urge to say “Maybe if you didn’t take so long getting everything set up, you’d have had time to give us a properly satisfying ending.”)

All in all, it lives up to the claims of it being a sci-fi classic, but with a disappointing lean toward Mark Twain’s definition: “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. ” It’s not in the “hook ya quick, stay fast and punchy” style that seems to have been winning out in fiction, the story has two distinct phases which appeal to two different kinds of readers, and it makes references which won’t outlive its cultural context. That said, the setting is excellent and I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have even one game adaptation when Dune got an adventure game and three RTS games, Ringworld got two adventure games, Gateway got two adventure games, and Riverworld got an RTS.

Given that I enjoy novel takes on the universal/multiversal construction of settings, I definitely enjoy this book for the setting, just as I enjoyed Piers Anthony’s Mode series, the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust that I wandered in on, and as I anticipate enjoying The Long Earth, the Spiral series (which I also was introduced to via fanfiction), and the fanfictional village of Eezdraug , which I think I remember being inspired by The Way.

Final Verdict: Worth a read, but go into it knowing that it’s slow for the first 20 chapters.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Novel – Eon by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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