There are many kinds of science fiction. Some, like "Contact", "2001, A Space Odyssey", or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", contain far more mystical speculation than hard science. Others, like "Have Spacesuit, Will Travel", "The Bones of Time", or "Neuromancer" stay grounded in the real world of current scientific knowledge while speculating on how future developments might affect our lives. "Heaven's Shadow" is one of these.
It opens with two groups, NASA and a Russian/Indian/Brazilian coalition, racing to land on the surface of an enormous Near Earth Object as it passes Earth. They discover that the assumed meteor is in fact a gigantic alien craft of some kind. As they explore the craft a variety of mistakes are made, including the detonation of a "suitcase" nuclear device on the craft's surface. Despite those mistakes, or perhaps because of them, the interactions between the alien species and humanity lead to the alien's recognition that humans might be helpful allies in an ancient, inter-universe conflict which is the subject of "Heaven's War" due out in July, 2012.
Along the way the book explores themes of life, death, love, and loss through realitistic interactions of a variety of colorful characters that includes both professional astronauts and rambunctious teenagers. The inclusion of both children and adults, the intimate portrayal of the role of technology in daily life, and the shift from past to present and personal to international all add up to a page-turning level of suspense that falls slightly short of Clancy or Ludlum, but is refreshing in what could just as easily have been a dull collage of facts and figures (which is a trap far too many hard science fiction writers fall into).
History is a hard beast to ride for a writer, often leading to unrealistic expectations in readers. In the past few decades there has been far too much mystical science fiction for my taste and far too little hard science fiction focused on the interlinked roles of everyday technology and extraordinary space flight. "Heaven's Shadow" marks a pleasantly surprising return to space-based, hard science fiction built from both realistic characters and realistic scientific assumption.