A Novel Ian Likes: Heart Of The Comet by Gregory Benford and David Brin

In the year 2061, humanity has launched an inspirational expedition to explore Halley’s comet on the occasion of its lifetime-spanning orbit around the solar system returning it to the neighbourhood of Earth. It’s supposedly a celebration of technology and ingenuity but the crew appears to be comprised largely of political embarrassments, has-beens and troublemakers. And to make matters worse, as the comet approaches the sun, the increasing heat causes some interesting reactions, not just in mass and temperature but also in its long-dormant biosphere…

The story is told from the point of view of three main characters: Saul Lintz, a disgraced geneticist; Carl Osborne, a hotshot astronaut; and Virginia Herbert, a scientist interested in artificial intelligence. All three of them see the expedition as a chance to push some boundaries and escape from a world that they just don’t fit into, and we learn about that world and the events that led up to the expedition through their experiences and memories. Our lead characters soon become the mainstays of the expedition despite not entirely trusting one another with everything they know about what is happening.

We soon learn that the scientists and astronauts who make up the crew of the expedition have signed on for a long haul: the plan is that each of them will be serving for a term of approximately five years on the tour, spending the remainder of the journey cryogenically frozen, returning to Earth at the conclusion of Halley’s lap around the Sun. It’s a tremendous sacrifice for them to be making but, as we soon find out, some of them are making it to protect careers, reputations… or even family members back home. It’s a dark beginning but it takes nothing away from the audacity and daring of the scheme because so many of the crew believe that the discoveries made about comets and interplanetary science will be worth returning to a world that is almost completely unknown to them.

If they survive…

David Brin and Gregory Benford were two of the biggest names in SF during the 1980s. Benford had swept the awards for his 1981 novel Timescape and was continuing that streak in the ensuing years, while Brin had arrived triumphantly, winning a shedload of trophies for his second novel, Startide Rising. A collaboration between the two of them should have been spectacular. I mean, both authors blend their styles remarkably well: Brin writes in a smart, enthusiastic manner that highlights the guarded optimism that he feels towards the future, while Benford takes a more serious tone that suits the ominous doom that overlays the expedition.

But, rather like Halley’s Comet in the year this book was published, the reception to this was a bit of a damp squib. The paperback edition I bought in 1987 is filled with superlatives from critics, and nearly every person I’ve met who has read the book has raved about it to some extent. But it was largely ignored on award ballots at the time of publication and, while it sold respectably, it didn’t do as well as the reputations of either author might have suggested it would. It’s a mystery, really.

But that doesn’t concern us here.

What does concern us is what is great about it, and why.

When I first read it I hadn’t read anything by either author before (although I fixed that problem pretty quickly) so all I really had to go on were the aforementioned reviews across the first three pages of the book. They were pretty damned impressive, frankly.

I loved it. Not a surprise really, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing about it 35 years later. The setting was astonishing and vivid, the characters were well-drawn with a whole life full of memories and experiences to draw on, and the story was captivating. The epigraph to the first section of the novel from George Saville sums up the ideals of the book:

“He that leaveth nothing to chance

will do few things ill,

but he will do very few things.”

It’s followed on the next page by a particularly grim first line that drives home the meaning:

“Kato died first.”

I’m not going to do a deep dive into the writing of the piece but as an opening, it is superb, and those two sentences give you a glimpse into what will follow over the next 468 pages.

For a reader like myself who is a lifelong fan of Science Fiction, this is a phenomenal book.  The pace rarely slows and the science, while necessarily speculative and pitched to the dramatic, tries its hardest to be as logical and real as both authors (Dr Brin is an astronomer and engineer, while Benford’s background is in astrophysics) could make it. The debt to traditional, golden age science fiction is apparent throughout; from the dedication through to the outstanding setpieces that pepper the novel (there’s an interview with both authors in which they gleefully admit that they made the comet larger than science believed it to be at the time simply because they wanted it to have enough gravity for the characters to be able to have battles on its surface). They also deal with topics that were just beginning to make themselves known in the public imagination: immunology and evolutionary symbiosis play a huge part in the plot and they were things that were little-known about at the time. Artificial Intelligence also plays a major role in this, and this was that rare novel that treated it seriously and without talking down to the audience for the sake of convenience. It also talks about immortality and what people do that makes them remembered, and the ways that they are remembered, with each of our leads becoming legendary figures in the history of their tiny world… but in remarkably different ways.

For me, though, it is memorable because it was a novel by two authors who had written something fun, but which also managed to take my breath away with the sheer excitement of it. I’d read a lot of SF in the years prior to this that seemed to me to be very cerebral and talky, embodying the “literature of ideas” that it prided itself on being. This was a rare moment where the writers seemed to be enjoying themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of books and stories that had humourous situations and moments, but a lot of authors of “Hard SF” (SF that tries to be as accurate as possible) take their brief very seriously and don’t want readers to know that it can be anything other than deadly serious: go and read “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin if you don’t believe me. It’s a brilliant story but it’s so weighted down by its own physics that you would hate to exist in its orbit (it hasn’t aged well for other reasons, but that’s a discussion for later). Arthur C. Clarke (who also used the 2061 appearance of Halley’s Comet in his third Space Odyssey novel) often had a sense of humour in his writing but it usually led to a punchline rather than a moment of genuine wit.

Brin and Benford showed a world where the sublime and the ridiculous existed side-by-side in a way that didn’t feel clunky or forced. Their characters have serious jobs in a hostile environment, but we never forget that they are human beings as well: human beings who are in awe at the beauty and wonder of the comet, while still having to deal with the mould and fungus that threatens to clog their breathing apparatus if it isn’t maintained constantly. That mix of the numinous and the banal makes the book for me: it’s a reminder that the universe can be hostile and threatening but beautiful at the same time.

You can find out more about the authors at https://www.davidbrin.com/ and http://www.gregorybenford.com/

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