Volume 16, Number 2, Spring, 1998


By Howard Hendrix

Cover art by Phil Heffernan
Ace Paperback, (1997), $5.99
Reviewed by Fran Van Cleave

The story is set in the 21st century O’Neill Colony, an orbital complex inhabited by 4,000 people dedicated to preserving the Earth’s biodiversity—the premise being that the Earth is poised on the brink of total ecodisaster.

There don’t seem to be many preservation efforts on the Earth itself, which I found puzzling, since they have nanotechnology. Even if you posit the stuff being banned after a nanotech war, which the author does, wouldn’t you expect them to make an exception or two in order to “save the planet?”

Take, for example, that ubiquitous ozone hole. Couldn’t nanocritters turn O2 into O3?

The story’s main protagonist is Roger Cortland, a Faustus-like research scientist specializing in naked mole rats. He doesn’t get along with his mother, he’s screwed up about women in general, and he has a master plan to save the human race from overpopulation.

Inspired by mole rats, Roger’s plan has some decidedly repulsive aspects, which he is either blind to, or rationalizes away by focusing on his good intentions.

Now, overpopulation is a great libertarian issue, despite the implausibility of prevailing planetary overpopulation models based on static analysis (holding that growth rates don’t diminish with increased wealth) and socialist ideology (holding that wealth is denied the masses by a rapacious few). Refreshingly, unlike others who sincerely believe in imminent population crisis, Hendrix takes a strong stand for individual reproductive choice.

Shortly after the main characters are introduced, the story begins to focus on the utopian philosophy of the habitat residents. While technopolitical intrigue tends to keep the tension going, the reader can’t help feeling like a student in a philosophy lecture, because the author tells us more than shows us.

I couldn’t help noticing that the residents of this orbital utopia are “assigned” to work in the agricultural areas for weeks at a time. Even though the machines do the heavy work, and all the people involved said they learned to like it, isn’t this a form of slavery? This isn’t just Walden Two in Space, with voluntarily shared drudgery.

The colonists plan to do away with money and private property, as serenity displaces the “Fear” and “Desire” that motivate such primitive conventions. For the time being, there is a lot of concern about funding. The orbital complex was paid for by people on Earth, while the colonists donate their agricultural surpluses (really) to the Earth’s poor. The economic notions here are not exactly libertarian.

If your tendency is toward the hard-nosed, you will probably be turned off by a denouement that depends heavily on Teilhard de Chardin and his universal mind. The deus ex machina plot resolution will add to your difficulties.

If you are a mystic, or have mystical tendencies, you will probably love this book. Hendrix has a good working knowledge of mystical philosophers, and creates lovely images. There’s a smorgasbord of angels, aikido, medieval flying monks, mandalas, and lots of strange music.

While I’m sympathetic to the author’s employment of psychoactive mushrooms for pattern recognition and self-knowledge, his conception of brain function has nothing to do with neurochemistry. My degree in pharmacy may give me a biased viewpoint, but I do not think it unfair to expect a little more science in my science fiction.

Overall, I find Hendrix to be a bright and thoughtful writer who cares about human freedom. I get the impression that he doesn’t want to think about where we came from, but rather where we’re going. As a result, he glosses over many aspects of what we are. If he gives his stories a bit more grounding in the sciences, he will turn us non-mystic libertarians into big fans, too.

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