Heart of the Comet

January 24, 2014
David Brin & Gregory Benford

In 1986, Halley's Comet made one of its regular Earth flybys. That same year, David Brin and Gregory Benford published Heart of the Comet, a hard SF story set on the comet, as a celebration of its flyby.

Giving a rating to this book has been the hardest in all my book reviews yet. Like Ringworld, it has its share of both awesome and awful. Unlike that particular literary abortion, however, the awesome is much better executed, and the awful not quite as egregious.

The plot is great. We follow an international scientific and engineering mission to Halley's Comet, intended both to study the comet and to nudge it into a short-period orbit to allow the Earth (and its Mars colony) to exploit its resources (and to possibly become the first of many comet mining operations). Part of the crew (including its entire leadership) consists of orthos (for "genetically orthodox"), genetically unmodified humans, and part consists of percells (named after the fictional scientist Simon Percell, who developed genetic augmentation techniques that eradicated many diseases and enhanced several human natural abilities). The expedition discovers a small alien ecosystem of microbial life and colony organisms on the comet, and breaks into squabbling factions while fighting infestations of "Halleyforms" and dealing with alienation from Earth. Their factions are both a result of ortho vs. percell prejudices, as well as a variety of Earthside political struggles.

The story proceeds from early work on the comet to the eventual dawn of "cometary man", a new genetically tailored comet-dwelling species, breaking off from mainstream Homo sapiens. There are all sorts of personal, political and scientific struggles and plot twists along the way.

Likewise, the setting is great. David Brin has a Ph.D in astronomy, specializing in cometary studies, and it shows. The comet is described with such a degree of accuracy and detail that it becomes a believable place. The political situation on Earth - recovering from the wars and environmental devastation of the "Hell Century" and now reeling from percell vs. ortho riots and displacements - is also depressingly believable. The forays into speculative computer science are a bit silly, but not worse than other 80's SF.

Unfortunately, the characters are absolutely and utterly terrible. They're stereotyped to such a degree that they might as well be comic relief caricatures. Allow me to introduce our three main characters: Carl Osborn is a percell spacer, a square-jawed brave young All-American Hero who somehow manages to combine being a genetically perfected superman with being a Relatable Working Everyman. He's also awkward around women. Virginia Herbert is a gifted computer hacker, who would obviously have gone on to become a housewife if not for the tragic death of her mother (because obviously, women need traumatic events to have any non-domestic aspirations in life). She's also a choleric lunatic who's equally prone to writing awful poetry and holding the entire expedition hostage when in the throes of her Womanly Emotions. Finally we have Saul Lintz, an elderly brilliant scientist and Jewish stereotype, who knows everything about biology, is Jewish, participated in creating the percell population, and is Jewish. If I imagined voices while reading I'd probably imagine him sounding exactly like Mel Brooks. These three form the most face-clawingly awful love triangle in the history of science fiction.

The main characters are so stereotyped it's almost impossible to care about what happens to them. I found the scene where Virginia holds the entire mission hostage in order to be cryogenically frozen along with her love interest particularly infuriating - if anyone actually acted this way, any sane mission commander would promptly grant them their wish and keep them frozen for the rest of the mission. Some of the supporting cast certainly have their moments, but most of the interesting ones either get killed off, or devolve into even worse stereotypes.

It's not quite as bad as Ringworld, but this is another grimace-inducing example of science fiction obviously written by rich white American straight guys for rich white American straight guys. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with rich white American straight guys - some of those (including one of the authors of this book) have written some damn excellent science fiction - but I find it infuriatingly bad storytelling when you can use the characters' ethnicities and genders to accurately predict who of them ends up screwing up and jeopardizing the entire mission, and who gets to Heroically Save The Day.

The plot and setting was great, the characters awful. I found that the former were good enough that curiosity and suspense managed to carry me through the latter. Your mileage may vary.

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