RogerBW's Blog

The Shattered Sphere, Roger MacBride Allen 22 August 2016

1994 science fiction, sequel to The Ring of Charon. This review contains spoilers for that first book.

With Earth kidnapped into another star system and cut off from space travel, while the remainder of humanity is concentrated on the Moon and gradually running out of technology, the really important thing is: what was the third party, which the creatures that did this were so scared of?

This is very much of a piece with the first book: huge cosmic ideas, and thoroughly flat characters exploring them. The space hippies seem a bit more interesting this time round (they're still Wrong but some of them are now allowed to be competent), and the major new character is a nineteen-year-old girl who can see all the answers where the world's best scientists can't come up with anything.

Still, there's a slight improvement on last time: rather than everything being worked out from unsupported speculation, the big infodump is conveyed by mechanical telepathy, so at least it has a plausible source. It's still an infodump, though.

As before, the technology is basically magic, with sense of wonder oddly uncorrelated with how impressive things seem: something which seemed like a very obvious application of the established tech to me (putting a virtual mass in front of a spacecraft so that it "falls" towards it at high acceleration, and moving it away as the spacecraft gets closer, thus giving you a reactionless space drive) is treated here as an astounding invention, while the idea that these ancient aliens have never found the concept of a replay attack worth defending against is simply passed on without comment.

I found this book less impressive than the first, but that may be inevitable: it can't introduce as many amazing concepts as before, and resolving things is always harder to make interesting than building up tension in the first place. The action of this book is about 80% theorising and 20% derring-do, which is fine, but they aren't particularly mixed together.

A third volume, possibly to be called The Falling World, was planned, but has not been published. While this book doesn't finish everyone's stories, it does still feel to me like a satisfactory ending to the overall narrative.

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See also:
The Ring of Charon, Roger MacBride Allen


  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 01:08pm on 22 August 2016

    According to the author, though I can no longer find the reference, he wants to do the third, but wasn't able to sell the pitch and went off and did other more lucrative work.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:10pm on 22 August 2016

    Thanks - I'd suspected something along those lines. These are enjoyable midlist books, but a big media company is more likely to want the next Harry Potter.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:02pm on 22 August 2016

    You've left me trying to work out what happens to the moon if earth suddenly vanishes. It won't just stay in the earth/moon system orbit around the sun, because the moon has it's own orbital velocity which suddenly continues in that direction (due to losing earth's gravitational pull). So I believe the result is variable depending on where in the moon's orbit around earth things were when earth vanished. What I don't know is how much difference that makes. The moon's orbit around the sun will be more ellipitical, the question is how much more elliptical.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 02:17pm on 22 August 2016

    After a relatively short time, a roughly-Earth-mass virtual mass is put in place where the Earth was; so while there are significant moonquakes, it ends up in more or less the right place.

    But that is exactly the sort of question that the reader of these books is expected to ponder.

  5. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:47pm on 22 August 2016

    Virtual masses are cheating, though I suppose it's no less "tech as magic" than the earth vanishing to start with.

    But I agree with you on the reactionless drive. Any physicist capable of inventing a virtual mass would immediately realise it could be used as a drive. Probably even before they'd got the virtual mass to work reliably.

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