by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
A book review by Mark L. Olson
Warner Aspect, 2000, 505 pp, $24.95
Wheelers takes place about two centuries from now in a world not very different from ours. Stewart and Cohen sidestep the Singularity by means of The Pause, a software-induced economic crash in which Earth slips backwards and loses most of its population.
When it's over there are two nations: Ecotopia, a loose confederation of most of the nations on Earth and Free China. Ecotopia is sparsely-populated and rather green, while Free China is a xenophobic, hugely-overpopulated China which has slipped back into the worst excesses of its Imperial days. Free China is not aggressive and is so intricately (dis)organized that it might not have the capability of carrying out a decision to go to war or to do anything else.
Ecotopia is tripe - it's poorly realized and not very likely, but Free China
is a very nice piece of extrapolation.
Twin sisters are at the focus of the story. One, Charity Odingo, a biologist, has a young son and lives near where their family home in East Africa, working to preserve the local wildlife. Charity's son is a bit strange, having little ability to deal with people, but an incredible intuitive knack for animal behavior -- he's able to communicate with any animal with just a bit of study. The other sister is Prudence, who is wild and after throwing away a career as an archeologist, became a sort of Indiana Jones figure on Earth and later in space.
The story begins with Prudence turning up at Charity's camp with the amazing story of having discovered alien artifacts -- the wheelers -- on Callisto. She eventually goes public and an old nemesis immediately tries to discredit her and steal the credit himself. While this is happening, Charity's precocious son is kidnapped and lives (barely) through a series of harrowing adventures, which take him to Free China and to an African village which is deliberately kept primitive.
Along in here it is noticed that the moons of Jupiter have changes their orbits, apparently spontaneously, and are now in just the right position to divert a comet which is falling towards Jupiter from the Oort Cloud - to divert it right towards Earth. Earth has ten years to devastation, and lacks the technology to divert the comet. Obviously whoever left the wheelers on Callisto must have been responsible. So send an expedition to Jupiter to communicate with them and convince them to divert the comet elsewhere. The race is on!
The aliens and their world are very interesting and worth the book by themselves. The idea that the space industry would be run by Buddhist monks, however, is painfully far-fetched.
Still and all, this is an excellent book!
See also my other Stewart and Cohen review: The Science of Discworld
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