Walking the Night Land: A Detour (Eon)

Well, we’re now traveling down the Way, Greg Bear’s far future/time travel/alternate history/superscience series at the end of which, I’ve been told lies something to do with William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land.

Essay: Eon, Greg Bear, 1985.

Cover by Ron Miller

There was a time, after I read Greg Bear’s Blood Music¸The Forge of God, and Queen of Angels, I enjoyed him enough, thought him an important enough science fiction writer, that I was going to read all his books. So, I bought a lot of Greg Bear as it came out and his earlier works. However, in my usual desultory way, I didn’t actually read any Bear novels between 1990 and this year. Still, I just had to pull the books off my shelf to read this series.

However, returning to Bear’s novels was not as enjoyable as hoped.

Since the point of reading this now is to get to the end of the series where Hodgson will somehow show up, I’m not going to dwell in detail on it.

I’ve read plenty of dated science fiction so a 1985 novel that imagined a limited nuclear war between the US and USSR in 1991, the year the latter of those countries ceased to exist, didn’t bother me.

It was the confusing plot, the superscience that seemed rather hand-wavy for a “hard sf” novel, justifications built on references to higher dimensions, talk of

probability without extension. Half-spaces, quarter-spaces, spaces composed of irrational fractions . . . geodesics,

and mostly dull characters that did.

After reading the novel once and skimming it again, I resorted, for the first time, to a Wikipedia page on the Way series. I’m not sure I understand the mathematical and scientific rationales any more for the effort. Perhaps, at least at the time, Bear’s speculations were credible. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time away from reading contemporary hard sf and regularly reading Science News. Perhaps my brain has atrophied too long reading, recently, weird fiction, much of it around a 100 years old.

Bear’s novel starts out promisingly. An asteroid suddenly shows up and enters Earth orbit and is found to be hollow, and an American group of scientists is sent to study it.

But it’s a dull group of scientists and the dullest (at least in terms of interest) and most annoying is one of the main characters, Patricia Luisa Vasquez – annoying not because she is stupid or emotionally fragile or cold. She’s so standard in her personification of genius, here in math and physics.

Only two characters interested me

One was Major Mirsky, leader of a group of Soviet space commandoes that launch an attack on “Stone”, as the asteroid is dubbed, lest America get crucial technical and scientific advantages out of it; Stone, you see, is not an alien artifact. It was hollowed out by humans. Humans from the future who, after abandoning the place, left a library which, among other things, contains a future history which details the outbreak of World War Three in 2005.

The other character of interest is Ser Olmy, a troubleshooter for the Hexamon.

The Hexamon depicted in the novel clearly derives from the same sources as the Hexamon in Bear’s “The Wind from a Burning Woman”. It has two major political factions, the Geshels and the Naderites. But the project to hollow out an asteroid and create a generation starship in that story is not replicated in this timeline. The Stone or, as the Hexamon dubs it, Thistledown, was completed.

And its builders, in an act of superscience and under the guidance of a brilliant student who, it turns out, will be taught by Vasquez, opened the Way.

The Way seems to be a pocket universe that touches on alternate timelines and points in the universe. Traveling down it is to travel in time. Artificial worlds, using material taken from nearby planets, can be built in it. And wars can be fought in it. Here humans find the Way already occupied by the Jarts who seem to be winning in their effort to push humans out of the Way.

The Way is still connected to Thistledown though humans have moved out of the asteroid, and Olmy conducts secret surveillance missions on the humans who are now in it.

There is a heavy political aspect to the novel not only in its depictions of the Cold War and its future but in the creation and destruction of human societies. The Death of 2015 destroys communities on Earth. But, after the Soviet takeover of the Stone fails (and, for me, the fight for its control was one of the highlights of the book), the humans, mostly American and Russian but some other nationals as well, must form a new community. On a parallel track, the Hexamon is riven by tensions and the newcomers to Stone find themselves pawns in that struggle.

But the Way and its uses and mechanisms rather confused and bored me. And, as I mentioned, its depiction ventures into mysticism or, as Bear has it, “Mystery” when Patricia, seemingly purely on mathematical intuition and innate talent and no training on the use of the instrumentality, is given control of the Way. In an attempt to use its access to the past and alternate timelines, she attempts to return to her family and a pre-Death Earth. Instead, the novel ends with her seemingly in an alternate timeline where the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt still reigns on Earth.

My sense is that this is one of the early sf novels to adopt the concept of human memory and personalities as information that can be copied, altered, and modified. Millions of Hexamon’s cities don’t even have bodies but inhabit a cyberverse. Olmy, for instance, is one of the rare humans to be allowed a second bodily incarnation for unspecified services rendered to the Hexamon. Parents can mix and match their personalities into composites that are then incarnated. Sex can be changed it being since, after all, it’s just a feature of mind and personality that can be implanted in a suitable body or artificial form.

These are all common sf ideas now however questionable some of the underlying scientific and philosophical precepts are.

I’d like to think I can read older sf with allowance for less sophisticated workings of ideas that are now common. And I don’t think I was particularly inattentive or distracted when I read this. For me, Bear’s use of them was duller – if shorter – than their use in Peter F. Hamilton novels.

Now every society has its misfits and criminals, those who just can’t or won’t fit in. The Hexamon exiles those personalities to a virtual existence in Axis City on the Way. Sometimes, these personalities are clever enough to escape their confinement and move surreptitiously through the information infrastructure of the Hexamon.

And, with that plot element, we get a glimpse how Bear might incorporate William Hope Hodgson into the series later on. One of these rogues is hired by Olmy to do some investigation. Said rogue models his personality and appearance on one Edgar Allan Poe.

It remains to be seen if we’ll see one Hope Hodgson as such a rogue later on in the series.

Next up is another step down the Way series.


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