Gregory Benford,
The Sunborn
(Warner, 2005)

Gregory Benford is among the best of those who write hard science fiction -- stories featuring detailed explanations of the scientific assumptions underlying key plot elements. An astrophysicist, he can fill a book with plausible descriptions of strange planets, interstellar plasma flows and alternate universes.

The Sunborn is dedicated to authors of like mind: Robert Forward, Charles Sheffield and Hal Clement. Clement was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America in 1998. His classic 1954 novel, Mission of Gravity, remains one of the best introductions to hard SF. It describes the life forms on a disk-shaped world with a range of from 3 to 700 times Earth's gravity, a world where the slightest fall can be disastrous.

The Sunborn follows Clement's lead with imaginative, but soundly based descriptions of what we may find on other planets in our solar system. It is a stand-alone sequel to The Martian Race, which featured the married scientific team of Viktor and Julia. Decades have passed during which they have continued to explore the Red Planet and to study a strange lifeform they've discovered there. Remaining Martian mysteries so fascinate them that the head of the consortium funding exploration resorts to trickery when he wants them to join an expedition near Pluto. Strange things are happening on that cold, distant planet. It remains forbiddingly icy, but has been undergoing an inexplicable warming trend for the last 20 years. And now the expedition claims to have discovered intelligent lifeforms there as well.

When Viktor and Julia agree to rocket further outward from the sun, Benford begins to reveal a wonderfully grand scheme to tie together the seemingly unrelated mysteries of Mars and Pluto. Along the way we experience huge, unnatural solar storms, dangerous interstellar-plasma streaking toward Earth and an unimaginably old lifeform from beyond the solar system. It's terrific grist for the science fiction mill.

Hard SF doesn't appeal to everyone. Authors preoccupied with scientific accuracy don't always do justice to the human element and can become tedious in their descriptions of how their imagined universes work. The Sunborn doesn't entirely avoid these faults. Viktor's clunky Russian accent wears thin and some readers will be lost in a swirl of galactic plasma. But the novel is filled with unusual and fascinating ideas and exceptional descriptions of the curiosity that drives science. Benford's characters, and many scientists employed by NASA in the real world, just can't understand why someone wouldn't want to go to Mars or Pluto or Alpha Centauri if they had the chance. They experience an almost physical need to find out why and how.

Read Benford to get a glimpse of their sense of wonder and awe as the universe grudgingly gives up its secrets. If you aren't a fan of our space programs, you may become one. Recommended.

by Ron Bierman
10 December 2005

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