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The Goliath Stone
by Larry Niven and Matthew Joseph Harrington
Tor Books, 2013, $24.99, 317pp
Release Date: June 25, 2013
Here’s the premise: 13 years in the future, during an all too brief period of enlightened government and funding of the sciences in the US of A, a space project is developed to send nanotechnology to intercept an asteroid and reroute it to Earth’s orbit for mining, and incidentally eliminate its potential for becoming a killer meteor. 39 years in the future, the nanos have accidentally evolved into a sentient species. They’ve also outgrown their original programming enough to show initiative. So they are coming back, but with a much, much bigger asteroid in tow. This causes a great deal of understandable alarm among the nations of the world, and several World Powers scramble teams to intercept-and-destroy/capture the technology of self-directing nanites. Meanwhile, the people who designed the original project and the infinitesimal ‘bots have not been idle. Toby Glyer has been surreptitiously using nanotech to save lives in his medical clinic in Switzerland . May Wyndham, who designed the rocket that carried the original payload, finds herself diverted from selling real estate when her own medical condition brings her to Glyer. And William Connors, the pain-wracked, wheelchair-bound genius who masterminded so much of the original plan, has been making the world a better place … by drastic, inventive, and curiously humane measures. Here are a few examples, and if you dislike spoilers, stop reading this paragraph right now, but if you need some convincing that this is a must-read, read on. The nanotechnologies Connors develops reverse aging; they cure illnesses and diseases; they radically speed up the process of karma/retribution, especially where stupidity, prejudice, ignorance, and violence are concerned; they categorically prevent unwanted pregnancies, in the best way imaginable; and they eliminate malnutrition while simultaneously putting an end to the food shortage problem. Now Niven and Harrington don’t just wave their hands like stage magicians and say, “This is so!” No, they provide a crash course in program engineering and analysis, having the most serious and contagious fun along the way.

Unless you are familiar with Robert Heinlein’s classic SF, you risk missing some of the early clues, riffs, and references in this story, but Niven and Harrison are kind writers, and they explain most of them, retroactively in some cases, so as to give readers a chance to first groan, or crow “Aha!” and “Oh ho!” on their own, depending on their temperament and opinion of puns and such. It quickly becomes evident that Connors, under his various aliases, is a composite of Heinlein and his most memorable characters; the wheelchair is one give-away, the numerous girlfriends is another, and the delivery is pure Heinlein. The depiction is done with such style and finesse that these two authors deserve laurel crowns, or the modern equivalent. The next time someone raves over Abrams’s handling of Star Trek, yawn hugely and refer him or her to this book, saying, “This is the gold standard of reboots!”

Great as this book is in terms of dynamic plotting, intricate narrative, admirable characters, and sheer fun, it also challenges any reader to step up his or her game. Honestly, one could write a PhD explicating the side-pockets of information and speculation – most of it, but not all, scientific or historical. Here are a few of my favorites – and no, these do not count as spoilers, just teasers: the reason why James Fennimore Cooper’s stories were so atrocious (it was deliberate!); the underlying causes of all those inexplicable ‘failures’ of the Soviet Manned Space Exploration Program; a radical method of propulsion for space travel; an alliance (‘actual’ in the story, a Good Idea for present day disenfranchised people to implement) called JNAIT; and the – sadly – fictional Lilith.com search engine. One of the GREAT scenes is when the nanites are evolving, and they avoid making some of the mistakes humanity made. Oh, and there’s a howlingly funny bit when they are analyzing religious and political broadcasts from Earth.

One of the axioms of Systems Theory is “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Whatever you expect from a collaboration of Niven and Harrison, this is more, and better. The Goliath Stone is a masterpiece of bona-fide, first-class science fiction, jam-packed with actual and speculative chemistry, biology, physics and engineering, much of it written in the Heinleinian style, right down to the double-entendres, the impish yet mature relations between men and women of intelligence and humor, the high-handed political commentary, the sharing of obscure and really interesting information, and details of plotting and dialogue that are carefully calibrated to either shock-and-offend or shock-and-delight readers. This is a book you can read with keen enjoyment over and again. It is one of three books I have read that left me fervently hoping that genius linked with kindness has a genetic factor, and that the authors have passed it on. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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