Charles Sheffield
Proteus Unbound

The title Proteus Unbound hints dismayingly at a sequel to Charles Sheffield's first novel Sight of Proteus (1978), which against a background of impeccably researched computers and astrophysics (Sheffield is a physicist and mathematician) focussed on some vaguely unconvincing stuff about biological "form-change". The idea is that with a little biofeedback, you can within limits think yourself into what you like, and in fact must display in infancy the ability to do so, else you fail the test and are deemed not human. Which indeed was what several characters became, thanks to attempting form-change while infected with the DNA of the sixteen-million-years-dead aliens whose planet is now known as the asteroid belt, and whose distinguishing characteristic was a painfu' inabi'ity to pronounce a certain 'etter of the a'phabet. And so on.

Sight of Proteus, in short, was distinctly a journeyman effort. Proteus Unbound does not so much follow as replace it. The hero has the same name, Bey Wolf (oh dear), but although form-changing is still an important plot device it's been cautiously moved from centre stage. Instead we get ingenious space technology involving the harvesting of the Oort comet cloud, powered by a system of midget-black-hole energy sources. The latter were field-tested in at least one of Sheffield's short stories, the 1978 "Killing Vector", and might possibly given more explanation in another: there is a mysterious allusion in Unbound to their all being produced in an unexplained cataclysm four billion (no, not sixteen million, I checked) years ago. One feels one is being left out of something.

The naff aliens have happily vanished, a good thing since their continued presence would have been very much the sort of "improbable-possible" at which Aristotle was wont to sniff: this time Sheffield has some more subtle, information-theoretic alien presences to surprise us, and too many aliens are not few enough.

Meanwhile, the Solar System is polarized on comfortingly familiar lines, with crowded inner planets perpetually at odds with the agoraphiles in their microhabitats far out from the Sun, where the vast emptiness can conceal anything up to and including the secret base of an arch-villain wielding superior technology to destabilize the whole unthinkably immense lot and become supreme ruler of everything. Wolf, summoned to investigate the first ripples of chaos out there beyond the planets, stumbles on....

This is a pleasant and inoffensive entertainment, and in the traditional words, it kept me turning the pages. Sheffield has improved a great deal in his character handling, although not perhaps as much as he thinks -- there are moments of suspicious glibness, and on purely psychological grounds I remain unconvinced of the "Cloudlander" readiness to live 30 metres from a black hole merely for the convenience of working in its one-forthieth of Earth's gravity. Like building your flat atop a nuclear reactor for handy central heating, though far less safe. "But spinning the living space for pseudo-gravity is hopelessly vieux jeu, my dear."

When the unpretentious story has come to its happy end (with a cautious drop of acid to prevent it from cloying), a lifetime's research looks needed to comprehend these aliens and the loose ends of their technology, while out there somewhere the arch-villain is lurking, lurking. Listen closely and you can almost detect his hiss. "You have not heard the last of me! This may be an intelligent reader's space opera, but I shall yet return!"

Footnote: I also covered Proteus Unbound briefly in my GM magazine column and for variety's sake picked out different examples....

Proteus Unbound by Charles Sheffield (NEL 267pp £2.99) is in the 'hard sf' tradition, complete with Ph.D and rivets. I liked the engineering and kept raising sceptical eyebrows at the psychology. Would you fancy living in space 30 metres from a lethally radiating black hole, merely for the convenience of its tiny gravity? Myself, I'd prefer the relative safety of a penthouse atop Sellafield, but this book's characters don't seem bothered.

They have other worries, like the biosoftware flaws that keep turning people into giant newts (worse, giant dead newts), or the arch-villain's unsociable habit of driving his potential enemies insane by beaming them pictures of himself dancing backwards in red tights. It takes all sorts. Read this for a modicum of suspense and ingeniously worked-out technology, not for actual narrative conviction....