Wheelers, by Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen
Earthlight, 2002, £7.99, 498pp
ISBN 0-7434-2902-8

There are two reasons why I might read a book very fast: it’s either because I absolutely love it and can’t help but power through to the conclusion, or it’s because it has some sparking, fizzing ideas that, because they’re dampened by soggy prose, I want to follow through to their conclusion as quickly as possible.

As you may have already guessed, I read Wheelers pretty quickly.

In the 23rd century humanity is slowly emerging from the Pause, a century-long global rejection of technology that engulfed the planet following the destruction of the first Martian colony after a computer error. A colony of monks was left to fend for themselves in Earth orbit, and since then they’ve done rather well for themselves in the mining and insurance business.

Now, though, the Earthbound remains of humanity are starting to look outwards again and one of them, Prudence Odingo, has uncovered a cache of wheeled alien artefacts on Callisto; but on her return to Earth she is arrested for archaeological fraud and the ‘Wheelers’ are quickly dismissed.

Fortunately for Prudence, her discovery soon looks to be vindicated following some obviously artificial shifts in the orbits of the moons of Jupiter. Unfortunately for humanity, these celestial machinations seem designed to send a very large comet hurtling directly towards Earth…

Wheelers suffers badly from poor pacing; the characters are introduced and subjected to plot development A, whereupon we suddenly leap forward years to find that plot development A has led to outcome B, which is in turn subjected to plot development C. For example, Prudence’s sister’s son, Moses, more than anyone else, is at the mercy of these arbitrary whims of the gods; his story reads somewhat like a thoroughly unpleasant 23rd century update of Great Expectations. Moses turns out to have the key to the book’s central mystery, but quite how or why is never explained - he just does, which is most unsatisfying in a book that in almost every other way seems scientifically plausible.

Stewart and Cohen do try and salt their narrative broth with some character and sometimes it does work, but a story of this length and scope needs to be held together by the linearity of its characters. There are great hop, skip and jumps in time throughout Wheelers that need to be bridged, but Moses is too weird to be able to accomplish this; Sir Charles Dunsmore - a reluctant villain if ever there was one - although a constant presence is just too sketchily drawn to allow us any purchase upon the intricacies of the plot.

Charity, Prudence’s sister, is the most consistent and believable character but she effectively disappears midway through, whilst Prudence simply has no recognisably individual character traits that I could see. I just couldn’t make myself believe that she was one of the few people on Earth to own a spaceship or that she spent most of her life alone in space. If the writers were going for a sort of ‘Rocket Man’ mundanity of space travel being ‘just a job five days a week’ then they were successful, but I suspect they probably weren’t.

Wheelers did remind me of Stephen Baxter’s sf but mainly because it serves to show what a very good writer Baxter is and how bloody hard it is to actually do what he does - which is produce big space adventures based on hard science and populated by sympathetic, believable characters.

One thing I did like in Wheelers was the authors’ refusal to go along with any sort of superstition or pseudo-science: people’s hunches or superstitious beliefs are always shown to be at best foolish and at worst deliberately fostered for the benefit of the unscrupulous. Carl Sagan would be proud!

Stewart and Cohen seem to lack the writing ability to do justice to the really stunningly big sf concepts that Wheelers needs if it is to work properly as a book. Sadly their writing doesn’t bring out the visceral horror of Moses’ young life and, at the other end of the spectrum, depicts literally world-shaking events far too glibly, such that their majesty and spectacle is lost.

I note that both of them are accomplished non-fiction authors so perhaps this is a side-effect of rendering facts calmly and accurately, but unfortunately it means their imaginative fiction falls rather flat.

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