The Charles Sheffield series concludes with . . .
Raw Feed (2000): Starfire, Charles Sheffield, 1999.
I wasn’t that impressed with Sheffield’s Aftermath, the prequel to this book. But here Sheffield writes an excitingly paced book, full of surprises, and with so much of his trademark hard science speculations that, in the discussion of the astrophysics of Alpha Centauri’s supernova and the surprising distributions and characteristics of the resulting rain of atomic particles, not only did I not have a clue as to the work of some of the mentioned physicists, but I didn’t even recognize their names.
Most of the characters from Aftermath are here.
Celine Tanaka, after 26 years, has become president of the U.S. That seems somewhat improbable, but John Glenn became a politician and this is a depopulated U.S., and Tanaka is a survivor of the Mars expedition.
Wilmer Oldfield, another survivor (we get no mention of what happened to the other two survivors of the expedition that were left behind in the Argos Cult in the first book), is here too. He and the semi-feral, rude, but very brilliant Astarte Vjansander, point our further evidence that the supernova was deliberately induced and its rain of strangely arranged particle emissions aimed deliberately at Earth and will arrive sooner than expected. (She has to be a genius to teach herself math and physics while a solitary survival of the supernova’s destruction in northern Australia) .
Nick Lopez is even more of an amoral villain here. He has turned his job as head of the new World Protection Federation into a private fiefdom centered on New Rio. He and Gordy Rolfe hope to slow down and hamper the construction of the shield protecting Earth so the planet will be devastated but not destroyed. Lopez hopes to gain more political power in the world of ruins, and Rolfe wants to gain markets (though this seem somewhat illogical given that he’s killing customers).
Rolfe is one of those improbable geniuses Sheffield (and a lot of older sf) seems fond of. (I say improbable because he spends so much time being a manipulative, ruthless manger of his company that he would probably have little time for invention and engineering.) Raised in the Legion of Argos sect of Aftermath, the dwarfish Rolfe seized his opportunity when sect founder Pearl Lazeny died. He used his electronic genius and what he learned of running conspiratorial, manipulative authoritarian organization (first hand from life in the Legion) to found the Argos Group which provides robots and management leadership in constructing the shield.
Rolfe is increasingly unhinged as the book progresses. Some of the best scenes occur in his underground complex – the Legion’s old lair – where he runs gruesome experiments involving mammals and genetically engineered, mini-dinosaurs all of which purportedly proves the superiority of “small mammals” which Rolfe identifies with.
He shows off his work to Lopez and Tanaka and even asks that his complex be made a sovereign country. However, in a surprising twist, Rolfe meets his end sooner than I expected. Rather than causing minute problems or having to be put down by Presidential forces, Rolfe (in perhaps the novel’s best scene) meets his end after trying to kill Seth Parsigian who has uncovered the skimming of funds supporting the shield’s construction.
Seth goes to Rolfe’s lair and, as usual for Seth in this book and Aftermath, asserts complete control and leaves Rolfe to the tender mercies of his minisaurians.
There were other surprises. Lopez unexpectedly discovers there are limits to his immortality, and, when the wave of particles from the supernova are found to be more destructive and faster traveling than expected, he decides to offer his full, unreserved help in helping to construct the shield. Lauren Stansfield and her motives for launching a killing spree of young girls on Sky City was an unexpected resolution to that plot.
Sheffield does a good job cranking the tension up as the situation with the wavefront gets worse and worse until the unexpected denouement where it is revealed the sun has been the target for the artificially focused radiation front.
The notion of the sun as a lifeform is not entirely new, but I’d like to see what Sheffield does with it. Of course, Oldfield and Vjansander cheerfully admit they could be wrong about this bit of speculation – as they and so many others have been wrong about many aspects of the supernova.
Sheffield does a nice job depiciting the engineering mentality with the heroic John Hyslop and his cohorts who heroically manage the building of the shield (though Earth’s ultimate solution is that it was not the target of the directed particle blast).
Again, the most involving subplot (even more than the save the Earth subplot with its interesting science) was the pairing of Oliver Guest, serial killer, and Seth (amoral killer who attacks those wishing him harm) to find a killer disrupting life and work in Sky City. Guest plays games with some unknown, future reader of his “secret diary” and doesn’t reveal the killer’s (Lauren Stansfield) identity when he knows it. The relationship between the usually uncouth Seth (who, as Guest notes, may be more educated than he lets on) who is a keen observer of events and people and genius, charming, educated acrophobic Guest (Seth transmits some of his investigations of Sky City via virtual reality to Guest in nearly deserted Western Ireland) was interesting and, in their work to catch a killer, it was hard to remember their past crimes. (Except for Rolfe and Stanfield’s death, we don’t actually know if Seth has killed anyone else, but there are hints.)
Guest is even more sympathetic here than Aftermath. We see him with his darlings, the clones of the 19 girls he killed, and he seems a genuine loving father confronting their growing up and nearing sexual interest in boys. In some perverse way, he doesn’t seem a total monster for trying to resurrect and restart and reshape lives he sees as going wrong. It is disturbing – but understandable – that the intelligent enhanced “darlings” know Guest’s past but still love him and threaten Seth if he reveals Guest’s location. Seth respects them; Sheffield never does explain how Guest makes a living.
I hope Sheffield follows through on the promise of a sequel when Seth tells Guest that he feels they’ll be reunited a third time. As part of the backstory I wish Sheffiled would have given us, I wish we knew what Seth had been doing the 26 years between books and how he wound up an employee of the Argos Group.
[Sheffield never did write a third book in this series before he died.]