Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: Crucible

Book Review: 'Crucible' by Robert R. Chase
3 / 5 Stars

'Crucible' (182 pp) was published by Del Rey in July, 1991; the striking cover painting was done by Darrell K. Sweet.

'Crucible' is the sequel to Chase's 1986 sf novel 'The Game of Fox and Lion' (which I reviewed here). 

While not disclosing any spoilers, 'Game' dealt with an interstellar conflict between the human worlds and rebellious faction of genetically engineered Manimals, referred to as 'Bestials'. 

A pivotal act in the conflict was the decision by the human worlds to enlist a super-genius, a Roman Catholic cleric named Benedict, to command their fleet.

In 'Crucible', Benedict returns, this time as the leader of a combined team of Bestials - now referred to by the politically correct term 'Gens' - and humans, assembled to crew the starship Crucible on an exploratory mission to a distant star system. The cruise of the Crucible is a 'kumbaya' mission, designed to show that both Homo sapiens and Gens can set aside their enmity and work together for the good of both races. 

As 'Crucible' opens, the lead character, a young woman named Shoshone Mantei, is abruptly woken from cryosleep. A disaster has befallen the ship: one of the fusion engines is damaged and off-line, and Mantei is needed to aid the small team of other revived crewmembers in carrying out emergency repairs.

Benedict has been revived as well, but he has been temporarily blinded as a result of the explosion that damaged the fusion engine. Despite his blindness, Benedict's uncanny intellectual abilities are all that stands between the loss of the ship, and a successful crash-landing on the nearby water world of Thetis.

The desperate efforts of Mantei and the rest of the crew, as well as Benedict's guidance, see the Crucible safely afloat on the chill waters of Thetis. But as the crew struggles to repair the ship, treachery and deceit become manifest. There are some among the crew - both human and Gen - who have no intention of fostering warming relations between the races. For them, murder is the necessary means for seeing that the conflict is re-ignited. 

It's up to Benedict, and Shoshone Mantei, to expose the conspirators. But tensions are growing aboard the Crucible, and time is running out......... 

'Crucible' is a readable, if not particularly exciting, 'hard' sf novel. It's probably not necessary to have read 'The Game of Fox and Lion' prior to reading 'Crucible', but it will help in making out the backstory.

Most of the suspense in 'Crucible' derives from the cat-and-mouse games between the conspirators and the crippled, but still formidable, Benedict, whose subtle stratagems are always revealed just in time, and just in place, to keep the expedition from disintegrating into internecine warfare. 

The main weakness of the novel, as far as I was concerned, was its rather preachy sentiment: a sf variation on the theme of how getting to know the 'stranger' is the key not only to overcoming racial prejudice, but to coming to terms with your own identity as a human being. 

[To be fair, this dramatized, humanistic approach to storytelling was part and parcel of 80s and early 90s sf, as witnessed in works such as 'Ender's Game' and 'Enemy Mine'.]

Summing up, if you've read 'The Game of Fox and Lion', it's worth picking up 'Crucible'. Those unfamiliar with the first volume may find 'Crucible' rewarding, if they like sf in the classic, Analogue-style mold.

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