RogerBW's Blog

The Ring of Charon, Roger MacBride Allen 10 June 2016

1990 science fiction. Larry Chao is a junior scientist at a gravity research station on Pluto, that's about to be shut down. He's just made a remarkable improvement in gravity manipulation, but the chief administrator won't take it seriously, so he fires off an unauthorised experiment to prove to the scientific community that there's real progress being made. At which point something very unexpected happens.

I won't go into detail about just what that is, but it has major consequences for everyone in the solar system. This is an interesting blend of styles: in part it's an SFnal disaster story, like Charles Sheffield's Aftermath or Jack McDevitt's Moonfall, an unusual format which I tend to enjoy. But it's also a giant puzzle: just what has happened, and why, and how (if at all) can it be fixed? Answer, of course: by SCIENCE!

Other aspects work less well. There's some attempt at characterisation of Larry in particular, but this is a massively multi-viewpoint book and most of those viewpoints are lucky if they get as far as two personality traits. There's a space habitat full of ageing, doctrinaire post-hippies, which feels too much like a jab at people Allen doesn't like and not enough something which naturally fits into this world. (Mind you, we never learn much about the world anyway. It seems that the UN is in overall charge, probably, but you won't find political leaders in this story.)

Justice, as with many other things in the Belt, was in short supply, and when available, was not of the best quality.

For someone with a reputation as a hard-SF author, how the gravity manipulation actually works (not at a fundamental level, but in terms of what it's possible to do with it and what it isn't) seems a bit skated-over and arbitrary. A space drive can apparently produce a delta-V of around 5% of lightspeed without the ship's mass being multiple-nines-percent fuel, and nobody finds this remarkable. And there are carelessnesses that should have been caught by an editor, such as saying "ancestor" when what's clearly meant is "descendant".

But, well, that's not what we came for: this is a tale of adventurous scientists and space pilots going up against a huge problem and dealing with it. (Though not everything is resolved, and there's a sequel.) One weak point is a massive infodump most of the way through the book, following a moment in which a key phrase (which had been occurring at least to this experienced reader for quite a long time) handed to the right person produces a complete if speculative scheme of exactly what's been going on and why.

As an SF reader of long standing, I'm used to grotty covers, but the original one for this book is particularly bad. Although many of the characters here are female, none of them is ever described as wearing a one-piece sleeveless skintight red garment, nor yet a weirdly ornamented helmet. It's a depressingly generic Boris Vallejo cover for a book with plenty of haunting images of its own (such as an asteroid gently touching down on the surface of Mars).

Followed by Shattered Sphere.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 05:06pm on 11 June 2016

    I have a different cover than you with the ring on it.

    I'm rather found of these two books, unfortunately he wasn't able to interest his publishers in the third, which I think is a shame, but there you go that's life.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:47am on 20 June 2016

    I'm glad it got a better one!

    (For anyone wondering, here is the cover gallery at ISFDB.)

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