- Vancouver, British Columbia - In season six of Star Trek: Voyager, a landmark episode called “Blink of an Eye” was released where the USS Voyager was caught in the orbit of a planet where, due to a tachyon field (or something), time was moving at an accelerated rate on the planet’s surface – one second of normal time was about one day on the planet. The Voyager crew watched, in a matter of days, the civilization on the planet go from an early nomadic society to one with technology comparative to theirs. The episode has been placed on several “must see” lists for Star Trek fans, and was a welcome addition to the canon. But what the average viewer doesn’t know is that the entire concept of the episode was taken from a novel by acclaimed science fiction writer Robert Forward.
First, I want to mention the Voyager episode. It was very brave to try to adapt Forward’s book into a 45 minute slot. Unfortunately, the science doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, and you’re left asking questions like, “how could life like that survive if they’re getting heat and light from the sun so slowly?” or unfortunately groan-worthy questions like “why didn’t Voyager wait until the people developed technology that could have gotten them home quickly? It would have been only another couple days.” So I’ll say this: for what it is, the episode is interesting and provocative, and very entertaining. But if you’re left wanting more, why not go to the source?
Dragon’s Egg takes place first in the very near future, where astronomers discover a neutron star that will be passing very closely through our solar system. The star has collapsed to a meager 20 km diameter, but due to its insane density has a mass equal to half of the sun. Within 50 years, mankind sends up an exploration ship, the St. George, to study the star up close. What they discover is that their presence and scans have influenced an intelligent race that has developed there, the Cheela. The Cheela have the mass of a normal human (~70 kg) but due to the immense gravity they are about 1.6 cm long. They are shaped like mustard seeds with a dozen eyes and a flexible body like jello. Due to the development on a neutron star, their makeup is not molecular like us but nuclear, meaning all chemical and physical reactions are accelerated – one day to a Cheela is about 0.2 seconds. At first, the Dragon Slayer (the exploration module from the St. George) is regarded as a god in the sky to the Cheela, but soon contact is established and the humans on board the spacecraft learn to communicate with the Cheela, who soon advance past their former teachers.
I really don’t feel that the synopsis I gave gives this piece justice. It’s an immense book, not in size, but in detail and story. That’s where this book really succeeds; it’s fascinating and intelligent. The science behind it is really very strong too, but this is a bit of a hindrance. The first chapter in particular reads more like a physics text, but it’s almost needed, as once the main plots really take off you don’t have time to start doubting the believability of it all. For that matter, if you ever start to stumble on some of the science, Forward includes a technical appendix at the rear of the book that is (thankfully) short but a great refresher. If at some point you’d like a picture of a Cheela, or aren’t sure what the inside of the Dragon Slayer looks like, he includes diagrams.
The Cheela are an amazing people. We meet and fall in love with quite a few of them through the book, all from different periods of time, but all embodying similar characteristics: curiousity, loyalty, perseverance, and resourcefulness. Many of them undertake great journeys and astounding sacrifice to learn more about themselves and their environments. Most of them stand by truth, but are also flawed characters with quirks and idiosyncrasies. They all have a deep affection for humanity, even when all they knew was that there was a bright star in the sky and revered it as a god. They are ethical and moral creatures, but can be petty and calculating.
Unfortunately one of the book’s big issues is the human characters. The Cheela are well-developed individuals with voices and passions, and are very relatable. But sadly the humans are all rather flat and uninteresting. There’s really no conflict or deficits to their characters. For that matter, we don’t really know anything about them besides what would fit on a resumé (Amalita used to do ballet! Whee!). I realize that to introduce some issues with the people would mean that for every 10 minutes they spend bickering about something, centuries would pass for the Cheela, but I really think Forward is a smart enough guy to be able to work around that. For example, he had a really good opportunity when Amalita screwed up realigning the dish outside the Dragon Slayer. Due to the massive gravitational and magnetic interference from the star (referred to as the Egg), she was in serious trouble. My heart started pounding (really!) as I wondered if she’d be lost in space, wounded, or even worse sucked down towards the Egg to be compressed, compacted, and ripped to shreds. And then the dish that was pulled away from her was distorted by the Egg and flung around by the gravity, turning into a superfast projectile, with a possibility of puncturing the Dragon Slayer and killing everyone. But in the end, she manages just fine and has a bit of a nosebleed. It was a let down. I would have settled with a dressing down by the project leader Pierre.
So I will freely admit the book is not perfect. It has problems with accessibility for those less inclined towards hard astrophysics, definitely. It took me a while to get through at first, but the further in I got the more interested I was. I genuinely had no idea where the story would go, and I easily read the last third in two days. I’m definitely considering reading the sequel, and I would encourage you to give this book a try.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes