Greg Bear

This book has a Jack Vance setting turned inside out. Vance loves to create a house-of-cards society (or several such), top-heavy with rococo ornament and with three coats of gilt on every lily visible; but Vance's science or pseudo-science tends to the sober and rational. Bear offers societies and ways of life which are solid and believable; the physical background, however, proves to be so thoroughly weird, complex and pointless that the author abandons all hope of explaining it unobtrusively. Instead, the penultimate chapter is a lecture ... It's not that Bear becomes infatuated with the complexity of his own pseudoscience (cf. Colin Kapp's excesses in The Chaos Weapon); his aim is simply to stretch physics as we know it and create huge, unforgettable concepts. Only by the time he's finished, there's such a heap of knobbly concepts that one despairs of sorting them all out.

Some of the puzzles, then ... The planet Hegira is big – diameter about 20 times Earth's – yet its surface gravity is only 1g! (Hell, we learnt that one at John W. Campbell's knee. The thing has to be hollow.) Instead of public libraries, Hegira has obelisks engraved with all knowledge, from kiddy primers at the base to Secrets of the Universe at the top. Snag: these obelisks are 1000 kilometres high and the atmosphere stops at 100km. Halfway through the book they begin to fall over, causing untold death and devastation. (It turns out that this is because those who run things would like people to have the advanced knowledge higher up the obelisks. Such kindness.) From Hegira one can see no stars, though there are strange lights in the sky (would you believe several million similar worlds?); during the book, however, the stars begin to appear sporadically and in patches. (The explanation of this has ramifications which fill many pages – that penultimate chapter, in fact.) There is a Wall at "the edge of the world", engraved with more knowledge; there are legends about what lies beyond; there are pilgrims who assail the wall when notified by a Sign – i.e. the conversion of their loved ones to statues. (This proves to be how those in charge lure people along for chapter-length orientation lectures. I haven't worked out why they don't just snatch them, but give me time.) Also thrown in are aliens, old and new universes, the obligatory Token Black Hole and a few oddities of Hegira's structure which seem to be there just for the hell of it.

Surprisingly, this ludicrous background makes for a pleasant read once it's accepted. It is of course inevitable that a band of people must trek across Hegira to take in its wonders, but at least they're interesting people. There's an ex-soldier on the run after twenty years of pillage, an orphan created and adopted by him, and a religious youngster who has been Signed as above. Plenty of room for good solid stereotyping here; however, their differences, inconsistencies and unexpected reactions are convincing as the three wander by land and sea, survive the aftermath of a falling obelisk (an impeccably researched earthquake and tsunami) and eventually approach the Wall and the answer to all questions. Unfortunately the storytelling is not enhanced by Bear's fondness for the dread wandering viewpoint; in some chapters it seems that we're looking through a different person's eyes with each new paragraph. I was left to wonder whether there is a deep, subtle reason for this constant switching of channels, or whether Bear simply doesn't care about the boring old single-viewpoint convention, or even whether he couldn't decide which chap was the real hero. Perhaps the last, since towards the end he kills off the soldier and the orphan, leaving a classical single viewpoint to undergo enlightenment. (I should have realized the soldier had been handed the black spot: his name is Bar-Woten, "Bear-Killer", and what author could tolerate such a threat?)

The book's conclusion is not at all unsatisfying. The remaining character – who throughout the narrative has been shedding callowness and learning compromise – succeeds in his personal quest and returns with the beginnings of maturity (also with the consciousness that these are only the beginnings). Simultaneously, the world of Hegira moves into the final stage of its own journey – for yes, the name is appropriate and Hegira is going somewhere. So are its millions of sister worlds; perhaps each bears a suitable name, the whole being a vast travelling thesaurus. Or perhaps they're all called Hegira.

Ultimately, though, Hegira the book is not a real success. No amount of good writing can happily integrate the characters into a plot whose real hero is Hegira itself – a plot where all the mystery and wonder centres on the planet and not the people. Though better written, it doesn't even achieve the impact of Ringworld: I think the reason is that given in G.K. Chesterton's essay "On Detective Novels". Such stories, Chesterton said, should have a key secret – a dreadful truth which might be stated in a single revelatory cry: "The Archbishop is Bloody Bill!" Or in sf: "The world is a ring enclosing its sun!" Obviously this doesn't apply where the message is necessarily abstruse (here Ian Watson springs to mind, a nasty habit of his); but Hegira's complexity seems gratuitous. Already the labyrinthine cosmology is fading from this reviewer's memory, though other things remain: that falling obelisk and its aftershock, the trees casting off their leaves "like dogs shivering water". A less ambitious book from Bear could be a very fine one.

This edition is illustrated by Stephen Fabian, whose elaborate drawings have been converted by Dell into grainy grot. Again, less ambitious work might have had a better chance.