Big Dumb Objects always provide an interesting starting point. The Stone, as the Americans christen the hollowed-out asteroid that appears above 21st-century Earth in Eon, is full of mysteries. It has the exact same profile as Juno, but much less mass, because someone has hollowed it out into seven enormous chambers. Could it be from humanity’s future? Or a possible future? And if so, does it hold the answers to avert a Russian-American nuclear confrontation?
Oh, 1980s. Your cold war fiction is so cute.
I say this not with derision but admiration and a healthy dose of humility. I can only hope that, in thirty years’ time, we will be saying similar things about contemporary science fiction that deals with possible apocalyptic global warming scenarios. We can’t fault authors for working within the zeitgeist of their times and attempting to explore the ramifications of our ability to use and misuse advanced technology. Instead, the more pertinent question is what does Greg Bear want to say about politics and human nature?
Politics and human nature are the crux of Eon. They inform both conflicts: the tension between the Russians and the Americans, which culminates in an invasion of the Stone that goes pear-shaped faster than you can say, “an invasion of the Stone that goes pear-shaped”; and the meetings between the 21st-century humans and their alternate-future counterparts from Axis City. In both cases, we have two groups that are not necessarily enemies but have very different ideas of how to achieve their goals. We have different individuals within these groups, individuals whose own ideologies are more nuanced and refined than the general group identity. Bear emphasizes that just because one belongs to a group doesn’t mean one’s own identity and choices are subsumed into that group.
Human nature is an interesting one, because many of the inhabitants of Axis City wouldn’t fall under our definition of “human”. Decidedly posthuman, they have mastered the arts of mind uploading, cloning and body creation, etc. A sizable portion exist as “neomorphs”, embodied but in forms far more diverse and bizarre than that of the human body; more still exist only as personalities within the City Memory. And so one must wonder the extent to which these people still possess “human nature”, whatever that might be. Decoupled from all those hormones and chemicals that make us who we are, are we still us?
Bear seems very focused on writing realistic humans, and it pays off. All of the various characters are well-rounded, an important attribute when one has such a large ensemble cast. I just wish they were a little more interesting. For example, Patricia is supposed to be a brilliant mathematician whose theories precede those that enable the construction of the Stone’s seventh chamber and the Way. But she spends most of the book in some kind of haze, as if she can’t quite believe what’s happening. This seems like an all-too-realistic response to discovering that descendants from a possible future have kidnapped you. But it perhaps isn’t the most useful response.
In general, Eon attempts a great deal but doesn’t always deliver. It isn’t quite a political thriller, nor is it quite a scientific one. It attempts to stir up a sense of wonder, maybe even guilt, over the contrast of what humanity achieves in the Stone versus what the Death brings to Earth. But with so many different characters, it is hard to invest in any one in particular, especially when none of them emerge as the most palatable protagonist. Overall, as a story, Eon works. But I didn’t end up loving it.