Bob Shaw’s 1976 A Wreath of Stars is a stand-alone near-future science fiction. I am ~80% that certain that it was the second Bob Shaw novel I ever read.
Gilbert Snook used his technical skills to travel the world, maintaining aircraft in the breakaway nations so common in the 1990s. It was good life (for him): he made as much money as he needed and he could be as introverted and anti-social as he liked. This worked… until he ended up in the breakaway republic of Barandi. There he pisses off Colonel Freeborn1, second in command to President Ogilvie, and finds himself sent to the diamond mines. Not as a miner, as a teacher, but it’s still not at all the life he wanted.
Then ghosts start appearing in the deepest parts of the mines. If the mines shut down, Snook may be blamed. Indeed, Freeborn will probably enjoy ordering the grating Canadian executed.
Magniluct lenses were invented to serve as night-vision goggles. Miners wearing the lenses see ghosts. Why?
Rewind the clock from 1996 to 1993. The lenses had turned out to have astronomical uses. Astronomers could now see anti-neutrino planets and it just happened that one of them, dubbed Thorton’s Planet, is approaching Earth. This might have been frightening, if it weren’t that anti-neutrino matter can’t interact in any way with the ordinary material world. Scientists are delighted; no one else is worried.
Having read about the ghosts, astronomer Ambrose appears to explain all. The ghosts, it turns out, are the people who live on an anti-neutrino planet (dubbed Avernus) that is completely contained within the Earth. Perturbed by Thorton’s Planet, Avernus is drifting up through and eventually away from Earth2. The lenses-wearing miners have gone deep enough to intermittently encounter the rising surface of Avernus. They are seeing the Avernusians.
It would seem impossible to communicate with these ghosts, but they are telepathic. By an amazing (plot-friendly) coincidence, so is Snook, or so Ambrose believes. Ambrose’s hypothesis is verified when Snook descends to the deepest levels and deliberately overlaps with an Avernusian. Revelation on both sides. The Avernusians are far more intelligent than humans, but their cloud-shrouded planet never provided an opportunity to learn about astronomy. Thanks to Snook, they now understand the cause of the killer tides that have killed so many in the recent past.
Having opened communication across species and other barriers, Snook confounds Freeborn’s nephew Curt’s attempt to rape a woman. A humiliated Curt seeks a rematch, only for Snook to shoot him dead.
Freeborn was not fond of his nephew, but family is family. Snook would flee Barandi but the borders are sealed. Snook is a dead man walking.
Unless… he lets Ambrose transform him from regular matter into anti-neutrinos, using advice from Avernus and certain devices conveniently located in Barandi’s partially completed nuclear plant. Snook will now live on Avernus rather than Earth. Freeborn will be unable to touch him there.
Alas, Thorton’s Planet is not finished with Avernus. The two will encounter each other again. The first encounter created calamitous tides. The second will destroy Avernus and there is nothing Snook nor his new friends can do about it.
Feel free to sprinkle “anti-neutrinos do not work that way” throughout the text. I wonder if the success of Shaw’s slow-glass stories (featuring a solid material in which the speed of light was very very slow) inspired Shaw to build a story around another miracle material?
Sadly, the obvious save — swapping dark matter for anti-neutrinos — does not work because dark matter interacts gravitationally with normal matter, while it is an important plot point that Shaw’s anti-neutrinos do not.
I was rather nervous about reading a 1970s-era SF novel written by a white guy but set in Africa. Would it turn out to be a forgotten classic revealing unexpected incisive depths in the SF of my teen years? That’s not the way to bet.
The good news is that the portrayal of Barandi isn’t nearly as horrifyingly racist as one would expect from the genre that gave us Farnham’s Freehold. Yes, Barandi is a not-particularly-pleasant authoritarian state, but Shaw does not draw on Amin or Bokassa for inspiration. Freeborn and Ogilvie are rational men ruthlessly pursuing reasonable goals3. Either man will absolutely order people killed in horrible ways, but for perfectly sensible reasons. True, the workers are poorly educated and superstitious. Blame their former colonial masters for the first. Also, they really are seeing phantoms.
In fact, I would go so far as to say the Africans in this novel are more positively portrayed on average than the entirely white Albertans in Shaw’s novel Vertigo. That is not saying much, given that the impression of Alberta left by Vertigo is that it’s a province best bombed into oblivion before being salted with Cobalt 60. Take comfort in “it could have been worse.”
Readers probably won’t be worrying about cultural sensitivity when reading this book, although they certainly could. Odds are they’ll be distracted by other matters, such as the dubious science and the slapdash plot (enabled by implausible coincidences).
However, the book does have two strong points: an eye-catching cover and the fact that it is mercifully short.
This book was so dire that I am not sure why it did not put me off Shaw. Lucky me, it did not.
1: Why Freeborn and not an African name? President Ogilvie’s modernization program includes forcing everyone to give up African names in favor of British ones. This seems a somewhat unlikely decision by an African nationalist reformer.
2: This would probably be clearer if I could do diagrams.
Imagine two spheres, one smaller than the other. When both are centered on the same point, the surface of the smaller sphere is deep within the larger. Nobody on the surface of the large world would ever see the surface of the smaller.
If the two worlds overlap but are not centered on the same point, then their surfaces might intersect. A person on the surface of one could see beings on the surface of the other.
3: Frustratingly for Freeborn, he and his boss Ogilvie are pursuing entirely different goals. Freeborn wants security and wealth, while Ogilvie craves international recognition and status. Those goals probably could be reconciled, but Freeborn believes a coup would be more expedient.