(2001 ) Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, Earthlight, £10.00, pbk, 505pp, ISBN 0-7432-0743-2>
Following the discovery of supposedly alien, wheeled artefacts buried on one of Jupiter's moons, there is much controversy. Controversy turns to alarm when it is noticed that Jupiter's moons have shifted in their orbits. In their new configuration they will slingshot a passing comet directly towards the Earth. Then the artefacts start to move... They are propelled by some sort of antigravity. They really are of extraterrestrial origin. It is time to go to the Jovian system to see if they can find the aliens...
Now, I must point out that I know one of the authors reasonably well both as a fan and professionally. So please consider this interest now declared. Having said that I am probably over-compensating and am being a little harsh with this review. Nonetheless, here goes...
The authors, mathematician Ian Stewart and reproductive biologist Jack Cohen, both life long science fiction fans, have hit the ground running with their first SF novel. Wheelers is a rattling novel bursting with ideas and colour. Debut novels can be a bit of a mixed bag, and while this is certainly true of Wheelers, it nonetheless entertains and is a cracking first contact story. The aliens are undoubtedly the stars. Without giving anything away, Cohen and Stewart manage to convey their alienness in a variety of ways. cf: the aliens' name of the Earth and Moon - namely, Poisonblue and Ruggedrock. Lovely stuff.
Having given such a hearty recommendation it has to be said that the authors have not quite found their feet writing fiction, and that this is a first novel shows. Indeed some of the SF tropes are laid on with a trowel. There are some irritating terms, 'infraredding' for instance - for goodness sake I do not 'infrared' my video. I use the goddamn remote! I do not 'infrared' an image to a screen. I relay it! The least of the book's problems is that it is too jammed packed with ideas (shades of Baxter and Egan at their most unrestrained): worse, that some if the ideas are not properly presented. For example, having tantalised us with Benford's Law (which happens to be a real mathematical concept) it is never properly explained. Alternatively, the writing occasionally slips into ambiguity so we don't quite get the concept or exotic fact being portrayed. For instance, we are told: "Humans have a very strong innate preference for symmetry. It comes from a sexual selection mechanism: women prefer to mate with men whose faces are nearly symmetric, they've involved a tendency to have more intense orgasms." This is great news. But is it the ladies who have the intense orgasms, or the more symmetric men in response to the women who express great attraction towards them, or both? We should be told. Then again the book really is a little long and there are erroneous sections (the ocean crossing) that one could easily do without, including the final three chapters which add just too much to an already rich mix but would provide an ideal basis for a sequel. The book would have greatly benefited from losing a third and I really would have enjoyed a 30 page appendix detailing some of the science covered. One can only wonder why Stewart and Cohen felt it necessary to cram so much in with such a large page count in their first SF outing. Could it be that they are so long in the tooth that they feel that they have little time in which to get everything out? Or is it that this will be there one and only crack at fiction? Despite the book's rough edges, let us hope not. There is much to commend the novel and there are some brilliant flashes. I will certainly be checking out their next offering.
Stop Press: I have just found out that a sequel is being planned whose plot takes place many years after the above...
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