(2011) David S. Goyer & Michael Cassutt, Tor, £17.99, hrdbk, 567pp, ISBN 978-0-230-75702-8
“In 2016, a pair of amateur astronomers spotted an object high in the southern sky, literally over the South Pole. An object one hundred kilometres across and heading towards Earth…” It’s named ‘Keanu’, against the wishes of its discoverers, due to the popularity of The Matrix. (Presumably after the demotion of Pluto, the USA no longer allows the International Astronomical Union any say in these matters.) The emphasis on the south celestial pole isn’t explained, but I’d love to see an explanation of the orbital dynamics here. Actually in the text the object is not heading directly for Earth. If it were, it should be travelling at right angles to the ecliptic, and if it was a natural object, presumably it would be from the Kuiper Belt, redirected by a polar pass over one of the gas giant planets. Although it’s actually going to pass close to the Earth, at about the distance of the Moon, there are no undiscovered objects that size in the main Asteroid Belt, so it still has to be from the Kuiper Belt if it’s natural. And it’s nearly as distant as Saturn when discovered, so it has to be travelling pretty fast when it gets here.
Its composition would include a lot of ice and out-gassing would not be too surprising – but it is moving very slowly with respect to the Earth, so slowly that despite its huge size, it can be kicked into orbit by one of those not-very-directional outbreaks. In short, it takes a very long time for the scientific world to realise that this is no natural object. Goyer and Cassutt worked on the films The Dark Knight and The Twilight Zone, and “the movie rights have been optioned by Warner Bros in a massive seven-figure deal”. (Guess who filmed Matrix?) With an opening comparable to Deep Impact, in which a child spots an extra star in the Plough and nobody else does, they are on the right track for success – and for some pointed comment on Bad Astronomy websites. This book is a page-turner, no question, but it does seem to have been written with a view to selling the screenplay.
What will raise eyebrows if they film it, unless it’s altered, is that the big shock of the story has already been filmed twice. It certainly is a surprise: even after a vivid description of how the central character’s wife dies in a car crash, I’ve got to admit that I did not foresee that the builders of the asteroid ship would try to communicate with the astronauts by reincarnating significant figures from their pasts, starting with the commander’s wife. Although the US mission gets to the asteroid at the same time as a Russian-Indian-Brazilian one, the main plot device is, ‘How would an all-American team cope with Solaris?’, to which the answer is, say ‘fu¢k’ a lot and carry a tactical nuke.
The asteroid is discovered in 2013, and a ‘Saturn VII launcher’ is available for a four-person mission by 2016. NASA’s new Heavy Lift Booster just might be ready by then – Boeing’s said they can have the capsule ready for a circumlunar mission by then, if required – but in this novel NASA has already made its return to the Moon, at the lunar south pole crater Shackleton, (what is it about south poles?) and its commander has apparently violated U.N. treaties and claimed the Moon for the USA in the name of ‘interplanetary manifest destiny’. This has aroused international protest and the disapproval of the Head of the Astronaut Office, yet he remains in post and serves as Capcom for the Keanu mission, presumably because it met with approval in the White House. That’s a story that could have made a fascinating movie and explored a real issue – the right-wing groups who want the USA to withdraw from the UN Treaty on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – but it is referred to only in asides.
If I add that the asteroid lands its own probes on Earth, I probably don’t have to say much about The Kraken Wakes or Lifeforce to hint at what happens towards the end of the novel. As this is the first of a trilogy, that’s where it ends. What happens from now on presumably depends on how much use the authors make of the huge internal volume they have to play with. Keanu is much bigger than Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama, which was cylindrical and ‘only’ 50 km long. Isaac Asimov calculated that a spherical asteroid fifty miles across, honeycombed, could have a habitable surface inside that was equal to the Earth’s. (‘The Universe and the Future’, in Is Anyone There?, Ace, undated.) The few caverns which the characters of Heaven’s Shadow have explored leave a huge volume waiting for the abductees and for the next two books.
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