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Alpha Centauri by William Barton and Michael Capobianco

Published by Avon Eos

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the years since space probes have dashed any hope of finding intelligent life and alien civilizations on the other planets of our own solar systems, Alpha Centauri has become the darling of science fiction writers, for the simple reason that it is the closest star system to our own, and thus the nearest place that we may yet have hopes of finding a new frontier, to make voyages of discovery that will take us to new vistas and unknown civilizations.

In this novel, humanity is surging out from an Earth and a Solar System that have become desperately overpopulated, not so much because of people having enormous numbers of children, but for the simple fact that nanotechnology has effectively abolished death. A person may have only two or three children, but if all those descendants continue to live indefinitely, eventually they will reach the point of overflowing the available space.

Thus a crew of wounded and broken people set forth on a years-long journey to Alpha Centauri in hopes of finding some hope for humanity. Each of them carries within themselves the scars of an abusive past, ranging from a pedophilic incest cult to general violence and neglect. In this dark view of humanity, no matter how far they travel or how elaborate the technology becomes by which they sustain themselves, they can never escape their own private hells.

What they find when they arrive is equally grim, albeit in a different direction. Alpha Centauri is an ancient stellar system, far older than our own Sun, and thus its heyday of geological and biological activity is long past. There are planets, to be sure, but they are dead ones, their cores gone cold and their tectonic movements long since ceased, leaving them with atmospheres depleted almost to non-existence. Even the ruins of the long-extinct civilizations have crumbled in the face of the viccitudes of time. But using a strange quantum technology the human protagonists are able to look into the past and recreate not one but three intelligent species who once shared the world.

They were not precisely cannibals, for they did not eat their own kind. But two of the species routinely fed upon other intelligent species, even knowing that their prey showed every sign of being fellow intelligences. The leospiders even found the Frogrmen so delicious as to eat them in preference to non-sapient alternatives, and deliberately manipulated the culture of the Frogmen to the point the latter ultimately became a sort of intelligent cattle, willingly offering themselves as food in the belief that they were thus being transported into eternal life.

And in a twisted sort of way one could say they were indeed becoming part of eternal life, because the leospiders had developed their own form of immortality. In fact, the culture of the leospiders lasted for billions of years before it began to decay, and the final survivor lasted another million or more in the mausoleum of his fallen fellows -- longer than the human race has even existed.

But for all their ability to abolish death at the individual level, the leospiders still fell victim to cultural death. Eventually they began to go sterile, at least in part as a result of their complex reproductive cycle which involved not only two true sexes, but two incubator sexes which contributed no genetic material to the developing child, only nourishment and a safe place to grow. In time they also grew culturally sterile, turning their backs upon innovation and throwing away the possibilities that could have saved their species.

And the theme of sterility runs through the entire book, for not only do the races and worlds of Alpha Centauri ultimately succumb to sterility, but it also faces humanity. A mysterious cabal has determined that the best way to deal with the rampant overpopulation of the Solar System is to secretly release a sexually transmitted disease that will render women sterile. They believe that if they can achieve about 90% penetration, they will be able to save humanity from itself.

Unfortunately, I found this element the weakest in the entire book. Quite honestly, it struck me as verging on idiot plot -- if they have nanotechnology that is able to regulate every aspect of human biology to the point of being able to keep everybody young and healthy indefinitely, why can't they use it to regulate human fertility? It felt almost like the writers needed a sinister threat to drive the plot, and didn't stop to think how well it squared with the rest of the technology they were presenting.

Review posted January 2, 2009

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