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Although the premise of Greg Bear’s Eon bears a striking resemblance to a handful of other science fiction novels in which a large alien object appears in the sky out of nowhere (such as Rendezvous with Rama), it ends up offering a much different take on the Big Dumb Object trope than some of its predecessors. Instead of the strange and wondrous object being of alien origin, the main characters soon discover that the large asteroid that suddenly appears in Earth’s orbit is in fact the product of human engineers from the future – and possibly even from an alternate timeline altogether. While Bear’s Cold War-era tensions may seem dated and his explanations of theoretical physics may be over the head of anyone without a PhD from Caltech, the central mystery of the story is so compelling and the implications so astounding that the lack of character development and context really isn’t that big of a deal. If you like your science fiction to come with a heaping dose of BIG IDEAS, than this one is right up your alley.
Eon Summary: The book opens a few years after said asteroid is discovered orbiting Earth. Completely hollowed out inside and nearly identical to an asteroid named Juno that was discovered in the main asteroid belt, explorers discover seven vast chambers carved into the asteroid, each with its own unique wonders. As with every great discovery, Earth’s major powers (U.S. and the Soviet Union at the time) vie for control of its unknown resources and potential advantages. The fight for the “Stone” is a mirror of the tensions on Earth between the two major superpowers, each seeing it as a necessary trump card in their increasing power struggle. I’m sure this aspect of the book may have seemed relevant and topical in 1985 when the book was written. But with the cold-war now distant memory to most readers, the narrative impact of referencing that historical conflict is nearly gone.
The U.S. and NATO allies are the first to occupy and explore the asteroid. With help from both Chinese and Russian scientists, they soon come across a series of shocking discoveries that have cataclysmic implications. Not only have all of the chambers been terraformed (with artificial gravity provided by the rotation of the asteroid), but the second and third chambers contain the remnants of abandoned futuristic human cities. After learning about the history and identity of the former inhabitants by accessing massive automated libraries, they come to realize that the creators of the Stone are actually humans from the future. In addition, they also make a horrifying discovery: the history books in the library talk of a large scale nuclear war in their past that decimates most of the Earth. Because most of the other historical events described in the book before the event match up, it soon becomes clear that “The Death” is imminent (with US/Russian tensions pointing the way). As a last ditch effort to try to avoid this fate, US officials summon a theoretical physicist named Patricia Luisa Vasquez to help decode the Stone’s riddles and hopefully provide a way to avoid Earth’s destruction.
As if the imminent destruction of the Earth isn’t enough, Bear throws an additional wrench into the machinery. The seventh chamber, it turns out, is larger on the inside than it is on the outside, extending beyond the end of the asteroid and apparently continuing on forever. Referred to as “The Way,” the corridor is basically an artificially created corridor that cuts across both space and time, with gates opening up into multiple different universes and time lines. As the Russian invasion of the Stone begins (as well as the beginning stages of “The Death”), Patricia and a few other scientists are kidnapped by strange beings and taken further down the corridor where they become involved in a struggle much larger than they ever imagined.
Eon Review: The primary faults of the book are pretty transparent: Dated political tensions, cardboard characters, wooden dialog, and discussions of physics that only an expert would understand. That being said, the real star of the book is the powerful ideas that Bear introduces and forces us to comes to grips with. Whether it’s the existence of multiple universes that exist simultaneously with only minor differences or the basic paradox of how the knowledge of events in your future can affect the outcome of those events, Eon provides us with multiple riddles to juggle and mysteries to unravel. In the end, that’s enough for me. While it certainly isn’t a classic, it’s well worth a read for anyone who like to think big.