How much scientific knowledge do you need to enjoy science fiction? It goes without saying that a lot of sci-fi fans will have at least a basic grasp of scientific concepts, but even that is by no means necessary for every work in the genre. To enjoy Star Wars, the viewer only really needs to understand what a planet is, the physics behind the hyper-drives or light-sabres are incidental. Other works of science fiction require a greater understanding of various disciplines; Eon by Greg Bear is a good example of this.
First published in 1985 and set in 2005 Eon follows a group of scientists as they investigate The Stone, an enormous asteroid that has appeared in orbit around Earth. They discovered that The Stone has been hollowed out into seven chambers, some of which contain abandoned cities, the seventh of which appears to go on forever. As the scientists investigate the mysteries of the Stone and the infinite corridor, the political situation on Earth deteriorates. The ongoing Cold War threatens to become the hot war while a group of Russian Cosmonauts prepare to invade The Stone to claim it for the Soviet Union. On top of this the builders of Stone have become aware of human presence on the asteroid. Humanity’s fate quickly becomes intertwined with that of the builders of the Stone as the enigma of its origin is revealed.
The Cold War aspects of the story have aged poorly. EonSome of the political scenes come across as unintentionally comical, mainly those featuring the West German Space Defence Force (Bear wrote Eon four years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall). The Russian characters border on Cold War stereotypes, while the subservience of the Chinese to the West is as far from our reality as the novel’s Soviet moon base. Bear is better at predicting the science of alien races than the politics of the near future.
This is a novel about scientists and a scientific investigation, so it follows that there would be a lot of scientific discussion. A large part of the book is given over to an extensive and truly fascinating description of the Stone. The more I read the more I wanted to know, particularly about about the infinite Corridor. Bear’s writing style is dry and factual, reading at times like an academic paper. This can make it hard to connect with the events described, but a lot of high stakes drama keeps the book entertaining. As the characters probe the mysteries of the Stone and the Corridor, their discoveries are explained by what sounds to me like convincing science, adding to the book’s overall sense of realism in an extraordinary setting.
I am a big fan of science fiction, but my scientific knowledge is limited to what can be gleamed from the Guardian’s science pages and occasionally New Scientist. Most of my understanding of science comes from science fiction and could very well be nonsense. As someone with little in-depth knowledge of science, I found Eon to be a convincing read. Bear seems to know what he is talking about and his description of the Corridor and the theoretical universe it inhabits will convince a scientific-layman of its realism. At times I found the more technical aspects of the novel difficult to follow, but this did not prevent me from enjoying the book. A greater knowledge of science might have helped me appreciate Bear’s work more but it is by no means necessary to follow the plot. Like the best science fiction, it involves complex science but does not require a PhD in astrophysics to enjoy.
There is plenty in Eon for non-scientific readers, with strong characters, human tragedy and a deep and fascinating mystery permeating the novel. Bear draws the reader into his world, deeper and deeper into the Corridor, one million kilometres at a time – that will make sense when you read the book. There are also a lot of classic sci-fi plot elements; expect aliens, flying cities and inter-dimensional travel.