Top critical review
Science fiction is more than just the ideas...
November 1, 2018
I wanted to like this book. You can see all the recommendations the author obtained from good authors whom I respect, and it's certainly an attractive central idea. After Arthur C. Clarke's "The Hammer of God," the movies "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," and Michael Flynn's "Firestar Saga," we've grown used to asteroids threatening the Earth--so why not up the stakes by having a black hole incoming? It's a premise that is breathtaking at first: how are our heroes going to save the day?
And the actual solution isn't all that bad. It's almost as dramatic as something out of John C. Wright. And the last few twists and turns, such as those involving the Moon, were actually kind of exciting.
But everything else, everything apart from the central conceit, was just disappointing. The main characters almost came off the page, but not quite. The "street-level" subplot with the policeman either should have intersected with the larger story, with him providing something critical for the worldwide action, or else should have been enriched to be a larger part of the book. The attempts at romance were unmoving and stale.
Other reviewers here have rightly pointed out that the novel's view of Science (with a capital S) is quite unrealistic. Of course I don't mind FTL drives and captive fusion reactors found in CIA black sites--I'll suspend my disbelief on scientific details quite willingly. It's the human element that I don't buy. Advances of that sort don't happen from isolated geniuses, working in secret, developing fully functioning world-changing devices *and then still keeping them secret*. The author tries to make this believable by having his geniuses be pariahs who are forced to work in isolation; I can buy that for Frank's situation, but not for Dave's. Dave developed his FTL drive while he was famous and renowned, *before* being exiled by the scientific community.
The antagonists are absurd. I don't know if the author is himself religious, but the novel treats religion as though the author has only heard of religion in cartoons and the New York Times. A secret religious cult with millions of followers, who all act in unison with suicidal fervor to let the world be destroyed, drawn from all the world's faiths? No, I don't buy it. They can't agree on whether Jesus was God, whether to have one wife or many, but they all work together in perfect harmony without any defections? No way. Moreover, even the most fatalistic sects of Christianity never claimed that you shouldn't move out of the way of a rock falling off a hillside, or shouldn't eat to ward off starvation. I know less about other religions, but I've never heard of a religion espousing that much passivity. Perhaps the author simply thought, "Man vs. Nature isn't enough, my story needs human antagonists too. But who would oppose the efforts to save the world? No one is that stupid...aha! religion!" He tries to ward off the impression of being anti-religious with a scene of the president praying and a sympathetic if out-of-place scene with the Pope, but it just doesn't come off. Moreover, we learn that several key scientists were inspired with prophetic dreams of the coming black hole before its discovery. Are we to believe there is a supernatural actor in this drama? It's never followed up on...
The political aspects are also disappointing and naive. Why should the rest of the world so easily accept the American government literally taking their countries away to Tau Ceti? If anything is a violation of sovereignty, certainly that is! Why do they let the U.S. station its troops at the space elevators in their countries? A better novel could have explored the tensions that occur when good men disagree--with every nation wanting the planet saved, but not being willing to cede universal control to the U.S. president.
The author's sympathies seem to be with the philosopher-kings; if only the Right People could spend money freely, everything would be so much better! If only the Scientists were in charge--that would be so much better than people governing themselves! The closest he comes to actually addressing objections to these issues is when Congress questions the president--but the scene is a one-sided debate, where the president arrests her only opponent and promptly declares martial law, and the scene ends with its sympathies entirely on her side. Why not have some characters express doubts about that course of action? The novel has a naive faith in central planning. We see no downsides to the entire coastal U.S. population living in government evacuation camps, except that the food is so good they gain too much weight. The book's early chapters show that Americans won't fully trust self-driving cars, and yet no one seems to object to being rounded up into government-run camps. And at the end of the book, the happy ending is when the UN starts ceding control to a council of scientists. Perhaps it's just my political bias now, as someone born in the twentieth century when Scientific Experts gave us Nazi eugenics and Soviet economies, but I can't cheer that as a happy ending.
So if you love independent science fiction and are hoping this will be a nice hard-sci-fi break between installments of Galaxy's Edge or Brian Niemeier novels, I think you'll be disappointed. If you are willing to skim over talky dialogs, hamfisted romances, and eyeroll-inducing politics, maybe you'll like it.