Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book Review: The Gates of Heaven

Book Review: 'The Gates of Heaven' by Paul Preuss

4 / 5 Stars

'The Gates of Heaven' (210 pp) was published by Bantam Books in May, 1980. The cover artwork is uncredited.

'Gates' was the first novel for Paul Preuss (b. 1942), who went on to author a number of science fiction novels over the period from 1980 - 1993, many of them novels in the 'Venus Prime' series franchise. 'Re-entry' (1981) is a sequel to 'Gates'.

'Gates' opens in the Nevada desert, the site of Project Cyclops, a longstanding SETI program. It's August, 2037, and technician Lynn Nishihara is expecting an otherwise pedestrian night shift at the project's HQ. 

However, Nishihara is stunned when she detects a faint, but unwavering signal emanating from the vicinity of the star Tau Ceti, twelve light-years distant. The Cyclops staff are dumbfounded when amplification of the signal reveals a woman's voice....a distraught woman named Rebecca Meerloo.....a member of the starship Actis, which disappeared near Jupiter in 2026.

The news galvanizes the space program: how did the Actis travel the twelve light-years to Tau Ceti......and has its crew discovered a habitable planet in the Tau Ceti system ?

Colorado resident Michael Ward, a misfit genius, finds the news of the Actis's discovery intriguing, but his attention is focused on more mundane matters: trying to avoid being fired at his job with the Mathematics Instructional Committee, a nonprofit devoted to science and engineering education. Ward's habit of getting sidetracked by mathematical puzzles irrelevant to his duties at the Committee has strained his relationship with his supervisor, a bureaucrat named Franklin Muller.

Little does Michael Ward know that his doodlings with topology are going to be the key to understanding the fate of the Actis.....and the most ambitious project in the history of Mankind. For where the Actis went, others intend to follow........and Michael Ward will find himself among the crew selected to travel through a black hole........

In 1980, the year The Gates of Heaven was published, hard sf was making a comeback from over a decade of neglect (a consequence of the advent of the New Wave movement). 

The comeback was sparked by James Hogan's 1977 novel Inherit the Stars, followed by books by Charles Sheffield (The Sight of Proteus, 1978), Robert L. Forward (Dragon's Egg, 1980), and Gregory Benford (In the Ocean of Night, 1977; Timescape, 1980). 

When regarded in company with these works, Gates stands on its own as a very readable hard sf novel. The science content frames, but does not overwhelm, the narrative, the lead characters are well-drawn, and the novel's prose style (save for some occasional 'character introspection' passages) is clear and direct. 

When combined with the fact that Gates is of short length (210 pp), Paul Preuss's first novel is a reminder that, in the modern era of lumbering, 500-page space operas (and here Alastair Reynolds comes readily to mind), it's possible to write a genre novel that is concise and fast-moving. 

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