Echoes of an Alien Sky by James P. Hogan
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the distant future, a spaceship from Venus comes to a ruined Earth upon which humanity has become extinct thousands of years earlier, leaving only mysterious ruins and fragments of a conflict-ridden history. Except the Venus from which the protagonists have come is not a hell world of extreme temperatures and pressures, but something more akin to the swamp world described by writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Yes, the equatorial Smog Belt is excruciatingly hot, and most of the people who live there make their livings by mining the clouds for industrial hydrocarbons, but the rest of the world has a climate more like Florida or Louisiana: a place where you need air conditioning to stay comfortable, but not a complete life-support system.
Even more astonishing, the ship in which they travel is not propelled by rockets, chemical or nuclear. Instead, its drive operates by interacting with the electromagnetic fields created by the various bodies of the Solar System. A vastly superior system to the rockets used by the Terrans, we the readers are soon informed through the mouthpiece of one of the characters, but they can hardly be blamed for their ignorance, because their relatively clear skies meant that they developed astronomy at a very early period in their scientific and technological development, before they developed flight or a working theory of electromagnetism, such that they formed a picture of a Solar System operating on the basis of gravity alone.
And quite honestly, the characters really are mouthpieces for the ideas of the novel, in the tradition of John W. Campbell's Astounding. Think Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories, in which the characters seemed to blur into one another, giving the impression that they have no purpose beyond stepping on stage and conveying necessary pieces of information about the theory of psychohistory and how the wondrous Seldon Plan is unfolding. In fact, some of his characters convey a very strong impression that as soon as the camera is no longer on them, they turn off and stand there waiting for the next time they are called upon to recite important lines.
Except that while the ideas that were expounded in the Foundation stories or other works Campbell purchased were generally extrapolations on known science (with the exception of the occasional obsession like the Dean Drive which Campbell got fascinated with and foisted upon his authors for a while), the ideas in this novel -- particularly Velikovskian cosmology and technocracy -- have generally come to be regarded as pseudoscience.
Now it's possible to read the novel as a form of alternate history, of imagining a self-consistent world in which Velikovskian cosmology is an accurate description of the way in which the Solar System was formed and the principles of technocracy are able to produce a working government which actually produces more effective governance than representative democracy (a system that, with all its flaws, has the best record for giving the common people a livable society of any system in human history). After all, one of Mr. Hogan's earliest published works imagined how the discovery of an ancient human corpse on the Moon would completely upend our ideas of the history of humanity and the Solar System. However, alternate history generally focuses upon the characters and their interactions with the changed world, and illuminates the change through their lives. Take any novel of alternate history by Harry Turtledove or SM Stirling or Eric Flint and there you will find vividly drawn characters with rich internal lives, characters who read so real you feel you know them as well as your neighbors, even close personal friends.
Much as it is inviting to conclude that Mr. Hogan was using this novel as a way to put forth the ideas within it for serious consideration, it is a very dangerous business for a reviewer to impute authorial intent where none is clearly stated within the work of literature. As we are frequently reminded, the attitudes and beliefs of the characters do not represent the views of the author, even when the characters in question are presented as protagonists for the reader to sympathize with. However, it is easier to remember that idea when the characters are well-rounded with interior lives, rather than reading more like little wooden puppets that the author moves from one plot-point to the next.
Furthermore, there is the awkward fact that Mr. Hogan has also written a number of non-fiction works, including Kicking the Sacred Cow: Heresy and Impermissible Thoughts in Science which is published by Baen, in which he expounds upon these ideas in a way that clearly indicates that they represent his Primary World beliefs, rather than just being an interesting intellectual game of what might be true. Which leaves me at something of a quandary -- knowing that the author has indeed written essays arguing that Velikovskian cosmology should be taken seriously as a description of the history of the Solar System, and particularly as an explanation for the genesis of many important elements of human culture, can I rightly approach it as if it were naught but an alternate history imagining what a world operating on such principles might look like?
As a result, I feel obligated to approach this novel with intense caution, to make readers aware that the ideas being presented within should be held at arm's length and examined very warily.
Review posted August 8, 2010.Buy Echoes of an Alien Sky from Amazon.com