Robert L. Forward
Camelot 30K (1993)
If I mentioned that I had just read a book about alien life within our own solar system you would probably expect a quaint novel dating from the first half of the 20th century, presenting a romantic, hopelessly obsolete view of Mars or Venus, but not a modern book by physicist-turned-hard-SF-writer Robert L. Forward treating us with a planetary exploration in the tradition of Hal Clement and of course previous Forward novels. What plausible place is there where alien life, indeed intelligent life, could exist in the Solar System? Forward takes us beyond Neptune, to 1999 ZX, a celestial body between comet and planet, out in the Kuiper belt at 35 AU from the Sun.
Knowing Forward you would expect him to devote a large part of the book to the means of the travel and the actual voyage of the expedition, but this time he glosses over those details in a preface of a dozen pages. Also, first contact with the native keracks, who call their world Ice, has already been established beforehand, so our explorers can go immediately about their research of kerack biology and culture. And what a strange world it is. There is only a thin hydrogen atmosphere, almost vacuum, and the ambient temperature is some 30K (-243°C), where only hydrogen, helium, and neon are gaseous and everything else is a solid. Necessarily the keracks are very alien, and the human explorers are forced to work through telepresence tools, using kerack-like telebots and virtual reality equipment.
Fellow critics on the net have expressed complaints that the human characters aren't interesting. True, they are only roughly sketched and wholesalely lifted from Rocheworld, including Forward's trademark woman character with red hair and green eyes, but then they aren't the stars of this book, the keracks are. The humans' primary contact is Merlene, Wizard of the city of Camalor, alchemist/scientist of her medieval society. Yes, all the noble lords and ladies of Camalor bear strangely familiar sounding names... To fill out the picture there are armorclad warriors on war mounts, joust tournaments with ladies' favors, and serious, bloody wars.
The great mystery for the expedition as well as the scientifically minded reader is the energy source of the kerack ecology. Sol, aptly called Brightstar by the natives, is much too weak at this distance to provide for the thriving life. Sometimes the keracks appear uncannily human but then again they are incredibly alien, and in the end their secret turns out to be even bigger than expected. Like Forward's other novels this one contains a technical appendix, but don't spy there because this time it contains a big spoiler.
Similar to his Rocheworld books Forward again creates a very intricate species embedded in an extremely simply ecosystem. Personally, I don't buy it. The keracks are too unlikely to develop, Forward handwaves about the evolutionary pressures necessary, and the method of propagation isn't plausible to be successful. Forward also ignores the time window problem any alien contact story faces. Still, even if flawed the keracks are a splendidly designed alien life form in a book with some unconventional ideas.
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