Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart are at it again, and, with Earth in the balance, it's bureaucrats all the way down.
Wheelers, the well-known authors' first SF collaboration, is a terrific, if quirky read. Here's the essential plot: Quick Girl makes exciting discovery. Stodgy Boy hesitates. Girl stomps off. Boy gets the glory. Boy becomes bureaucrat; Girl gets going, and brings back souvenirs (this is where the Wheelers come in). Boy ruins Girl's career, again, and threatens Girl's family. Killer snowball threatens everybody. Boy can't save the earth alone. Girl has a go, but needs Boy, with a little help from her friends, and a nephew, and a rebellious Blimp. The Earth is saved, more or less. Boy and Girl find Themselves, Each Other, and the Guru (who talks a lot like a wound up Cohen or Stewart at the pub's corner table). Boy and Girl sort of hitch their star to a wagon drawn by celestial Clydesdales and prepare to ride off out of the sunset, approximately. Music of the spheres up.
Of course, there are complications galore: hard boiled poachers, a nutty production crew, a four year old cockroach whisperer, an empty talking head, Chinese drug (think viagra) kingpins, a top-gun Buddhist monk rocket driver that makes Han Solo look a Pasadena Granny on Sunday afternoon, stupefying intra-jovian politics, errant semi-sentient machines (which slightly resemble Niven's and Pournelle's Brown Moties), and a wayward moon. It is in these details that the story really takes off.
There is a huge quantity of real science in Wheelers, which makes sense: Stewart is a Mathematician, while Cohen's specialty is reproductive biology. Together and separately, the prolific writers are responsible for many science books, both popular and academic. Plus, they co-authored, along with Terry Pratchett, the best-selling Science of Discworld. There is much fictional science as well, which, for the most part, hangs together quite well (I thought the crucial concept of gravitational repulsion needed some stronger explanation). But can they write a story? This is a more complicated issue. That is, yes indeed, but there are caveats. Oh, there's plenty of narrative imperative, along with good fun, like a James Bondian, hell-bent-for-sulfurous-leather interplanetary chase scene (the other 007 touch is a propensity for unbelievably close calls). But the characters and institutions, at least the human ones, seem far from organic. And, considering the "hard" science, the use of the undefined term "year" and the non-use of metric units are questionable. More importantly, while you might be able to take the professors out of the classroom, it is apparently harder to take the classroom out of the professors: Stewart and Cohen have so much to say that, explanatory or no, the explication often breaks up the flow of the story. And the reader unfamiliar with the authors' style might find the pedagogy somewhat heavy-handed. Still, these forced breaks are often interesting in their own right. Particularly involving is an extended riff on Jovian reproduction. Also, there's a great bit about fancy rocket science, which is seamlessly, if hair-raisingly integrated into the story.
Then, too, Wheelers can't quite decide whether it wants to be a suspense drama or an lecture hall tour-de-wit, being replete with inside Pratchettian jokes (such as the running million-to-one gag, a nice Granny Weatherwax killer bees bit, and a "personal disorganizer" cameo), allusions to all kinds of movies and movie characters (Jaws, Horse Whisperer, Indiana Jones, Yoda), plays on Jungian terminology (the aliens have a collective consciousness), and hilarious translations of putative Jovian documents. And, I'm sure, many other would-be howlers that went screaming over my head. I personally find these to be hidden nuggets rather than distractions (even Hamlet has such extra layers), but, again, some may feel that they get in the way of a straight story. In any case, it is hard not to like the authors' proclivity to work in digs about pop culture and academic committees, along with sharp pokes at rivals in the paradigm wars.
Old-time SFers will recognize the punch line as that of Zenna Henderson's wonderful 1962 short story, "Subcommittee" (when push comes to shove, don't leave the fate of Earth in the hands of professionals), but the meta-message is found in the denouement (a long sequence intended to evoke an almost mystical, Rachel Carson-like sense of wonder, but instead will leave many heads well scratched): It's life all the way down--or up, or back, or something--from quantum to molecular to memetic to plasmoid (the latter are represented by "magnetotori", the aforementioned celestial chariot pullers, steeds worthy of a literal Phaeton). The bottom line? Highly recommended. Life wants to live...and, hey, guys, narrative imperative wants a sequel.