RogerBW's Blog

The Web Between the Worlds, Charles Sheffield 06 August 2020

1979 science fiction. Rob Merlin is the world's best engineer, but he's being given his most challenging project yet.

This is the "other" space elevator book, and of course one looks at it in the context of Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, which came out first and scooped all the awards. Like that book, this one starts with the assumption that the project is basically a Good Thing, and therefore any drawbacks (such as the failure mode of a severing of the cable at or near the geosync point, which wraps gigatons of cable twice round the Earth) are to be talked away rather than taken seriously. And like that book, this one keeps the cast small.

But unlike Fountains, there's also action… produced by an entirely unrelated plot, dealing with the deaths of Rob's parents. There's never any doubt as to who is responsible, since he apparently gets his mannerisms from Villains "Я" Us, but the main puzzle is in why he did it: clearly this is a large and lethal cover-up, but what was he covering?

There's also a probably-intelligent giant squid.

But the meat of the book is the technical details, though even Sheffield ignores many of the problems (Van Allen belts, vibrational modes, space débris, the need to remove all other sub-geo satellites or actively dodge round them). He also introduces the bold approach of constructing the cable elsewhere and flying it into place, anchoring it on Earth with a massive high-speed earthmoving operation. And if that isn't enough, we also have other momentum-sink rotating cables, and refining an asteroid by spinning and melting it. And a mysterious cavern, 12km down, for which the obvious thing to do is to turn it into a luxury restaurant. And, in 2040 or thereabouts, there's still large-scale coal mining on Earth… which, alas, looks rather more plausible now than when Sheffield wrote it.

The cast, meanwhile, either act like engineers or don't. The plot with action in it is trying to be a thriller, but because it's not connected with the construction project that's meant to be what the book is about, it always feels instead like a distraction.

It's OK, but never more than that.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:07am on 06 August 2020

    At the '79 Worldcon, I saw Clarke being asked about this deployment method for a cable. His response: "I want to be at the north pole when they try that!"

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