According to James P. Hogan's latest novel, "Moon Flower", Earth of the mid-twenty-first century has become a truly disagreeable place. The world is ruled by mega-conglomerates like Interworld Restructuring Corporation and its thuggish military contractor, Milicorp Transnational. Countries like the United States of America have fragmented into smaller, regional entities which serve primarily as bill collectors for the corporations. Personal rights have practically ceased to exist. You can't even leave the university at Berkeley for lunch without passing through a checkpoint and getting wanded and frisked. Is it worth the hassle?
Certain people are born misfits. Take quantum physicist Marc Shearer. Sure, he could make tons of money coming up with nasty new superweapons for one of the big corporations, but he'd rather do basic research to further the understanding of reality. Very early on, he gets dumped by his girlfriend because he isn't Going Places. He amuses himself by playing a certain parlor game called "nuts" with his companions -- it serves as a fascinating insight into basic, dysfunctional human nature.
Then there's Jerri Perlok. She's an anthropologist who looks at the strutting and preening of the privileged classes, and sees little difference between them and peacocks going through their mating rituals. She trusts her instincts, as well as the instincts of her little dog, Nimi (short for Nimrod). If the dog doesn't like someone, neither does she.
Both Marc and Jerri quickly find themselves on an interstellar voyage to a recently discovered planet called Cyrene. Marc was selected because of his ties with another physicist, his mentor, Evan Wade. Dr. Wade has gone missing -- along with practically everyone else in the two previous missions to Cyrene. Even hardened, dedicated officers of Interworld or Milicorp. Those who do stay in touch with Earth seem oddly lackadaisical. They just don't see any reason to keep up with Earth's mindless rat race any more. Something about Cyrene is getting to them. Is it the water? Something in the air? Or something much more mysterious?
Thus begins Hogan's latest engaging story. The basic theme will be familiar to long-time Hogan readers: the tyrannical forces of greed and conformity -- and their deluded minions -- on the one side, versus the more individualistic and altruistic people on the other. It's embodied in the question native Cyreneans, a humanoid race, ask of their Terran visitors: "But what is it that you actually DO?" They understand architects, doctors and engineers. They don't understand spoiled, bratty socialites whose sole claim to fame is whom they're related to, or how big their house is, or how many pictures they have hanging on their walls.
Interworld, we learn early on, has a very brutal, underhanded way of subjecting uncooperative client worlds. They pit different factions against one another, or appeal to religious phobias with an updated version of Moses and the Ten Plagues of Egypt. But the Cyreneans aren't impressed. They have a peculiar sort of intuition which renders them immune to the usual sorts of ploys. It even guides their science: they just "know" that this particular type of steam engine is "right", even if they don't fully grasp the fundamentals of physics. Interworld is losing a lot of money on this latest venture, and it's time to lay down the law.
I found the characters very engaging right from the outset, with none of that clunky, awkward dialog some of Hogan's recent novels have suffered in the opening chapters. Hogan's descriptions of the world of Cyrene are very imaginative. Picture a world with a very elongated orbit, around the larger member of a binary star system. It has complicated extremes of day and night, summer and winter, depending on how close together the two suns are in the sky, and how close the planet is to its primary sun. Hogan's landscape descriptions are very vivid, making me want to reread them and savor them. In fact, I'm thinking of rereading the whole book.
And, of course, there's the science. A hallmark of Hogan's novels can be described by this dust jacket blurb: he combines "informed and accurate speculation from the cutting edge of science and technology with suspenseful story-telling and living, breathing characters."
Central to the plot is the study of "A-waves", an artifact of certain quantum mechanical wave functions, which theoretically propagate backward in time. If it could be established that these actually existed, and that biological systems (plants and animals) were sensitive to such things, what would be the effect? Of particular interest to Terran scientists like Wade Evans is the ubiquitous Cyrenean moon flower.
About the only major complaint I have about this book is poor editing. Hogan uses "perigee" and a misspelled "perigree", which he really means "perihelion". Ditto for "apogee" versus "aphelion". And there are a few other typos which occasionally jar the reader and obscure meaning. Come on, guys: advanced spelling and grammar checkers are no substitute for a real, live human being.
No doubt some detractors will see Hogan as harping monotonously on the same themes over and over again: the need to escape from a society mindlessly squabbling over a bowl of beer nuts, be it to another planet, another star, or a distant timeline in the multiverse. But for me, each Hogan novel is just enough different to keep my interest piqued. I'm looking forward to many more.