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Not so far in the future - well, *a* future, not necessarily ours - an asteroid is spotted approaching Earth. Rather than threatening catastrophic collision, however, the deadly danger from this asteroid comes from Earth itself: or rather, from the different nations squabbling over what it all means, who's in control... and where the heck it came from. For you see, as the asteroid - The Stone - goes into orbit around our planet, exploration finds all manner of unexpected things inside the rock. Vast chambers, massive but empty cities. And the last, seventh chamber... well, it doesn't seem to end where the outside of the asteroid suggests it must...
As the Americans, first on the scene, take initial control, tensions soon rise as the forced concessions to other nations aren't seen as enough. Strict access policies are in force even amongst the initial explorers - but why, exactly, are so few people allowed into the city library? Could it be because the books - familiar titles amongst them - have future publication dates, and information about history that hasn't happened yet?
This is my first experience of Greg Bear's writing, prompted by my belated discovery of the Orion Millennium Masterworks list/series - 73 titles representing the 'best' (with so many omissions!) of the last 60 years of sci-fi writing. Eon manages a middling 50th position, and while I don't think the list was ordered by merit per se, it does strike me as a fairly appropriate position.
My reasoning behind that is the changes in tone that occur during the narrative. Overall, it's a thoroughly intriguing and enjoyable story - I'm certainly looking forward to picking up the sequels soon - but those shifts in mood rather jarred me, each feeling like a slight cop-out from finishing the story as started, if that makes sense.
Initially, Eon is my favourite kind of sci-fi: world building, full of ideas and theories and mysteries to be unravelled. A brilliant young (female!) mathematician is invited to join the science team in orbit, trying to answer the big questions: where has the Stone come from, who built it, what marvels are contained within the seven vast chambers hollowed out in the middle - or, indeed, beyond the physics-defying seventh?
The first change works well: political tensions on Earth have been running high, and the additional strain caused by the Stone-issues only fuels the fire. It's definitely worth mentioning that Eon was written in the mid-1980s - it thus becomes now a sort of alternative future (the 'future' setting being very slightly behind us now!), bringing forward the Cold War tensions and paranoia. In particular the America versus Russia and the references to nuclear attacks - called the 'Little Death' and 'Death' - are slightly more the fears of that time.
However, I was disappointed that the increase in action and fighting detracted from the intellectual ponderings - although this might be a big plus for some people! While completely realistic, it annoyed me that even in fiction petty squabbles over ownership could distract from the real, huge marvellous thing that's being fought over!
The final big shift in story-type, at least from my point of view, is the eventual introduction of the Stone's builders. I'll leave the details to the reader, but while discussing a lot more of the wondrous technological possibilities, it did seem a rather rushed flick through several cultures and alien races, none of which I felt I could begin to understand from their relatively brief mention here. I can see why Eon became the first of a trilogy: there just aren't enough explanations to all the parts of the story crammed in here. It lessened the novel for me, somewhat, but as an introduction to a new universe it certainly does its job well.
That said, there is more than enough here to recommend the book. The somewhat circular path of the narrative - I shall say no more! - works well, and the changes in tone at least stop any kind of boredom from being possible!
Away from the narrative, Eon has more to its credit. The characters appealed to me - I'm not sure I'd call them all fully-fleshed, and certainly a few stereotypes seemed to creep in for the non-Americans, but the main few certainly had me caught up in their lives. I was particularly impressed that so many of the characters were female, and fully integrated, powerful parts of the story - sometimes rare in science fiction.
While not fully 'hard sci-fi' as I take the term (i.e., heavy, scientific expositions), there are several explanations that completely went over my head - however, the science in question seemed at best theoretical (if not slightly made up!), and beyond the comprehension of most of the very brainy characters, let alone the poor reader! That being the case, it actually worked well: here are concepts beyond the realms of current thought, of course they're baffling! Nothing is ever laid on too thickly, in my opinion, so there's no wading through endless pages of technicalities.
Overall, then, I did indeed enjoy the read. It didn't envelop me quite as much as I would have hoped - those shifts in style stopped me getting quite as engrossed as I wanted - but as I expect from good sci-fi, the ideas are spectacular, and not utterly fantastical. Well, a bit - but that's why it's fiction ;)
Paperback: 504 pages (Gollancz 2008)
First published in 1985
For those who are interested, the Orion Millennium Masterworks list can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SF_Masterworks - I'm find it a great way to introduce myself to some 'new' sci-fi.