The Alice Encounter by John Gribbin

The Blurb On The Back:

There is about 10 times more dark matter (DM, also known here as Alice matter) than bright stuff in our Galaxy.

The DM is spread out in a roughly uniform sphere (a spherical distribution of Alice stars), with our flattened disk Galaxy embedded in it.  The “Alice matter”, is a kind of mirror image shadow stuff; the term “looking glass matter” has been used by some scientists.  Alice matter can be turned into ordinary matter (and vice versa) by sending it though a loop of Alice string, a naturally occurring cosmic phenomenon.

Aliens in the DM world, more advanced than we are, have discovered the trace of 10 per cent “normal” matter in “their” universe.  And have come to investigate it.

Our disk is a perturbation that they are puzzled about.

You can order The Alice Encounter by John Gribbin from Amazon UK, or Waterstone’s.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the year 2550.  Ondray (originally from Earth) and his lover Tugela (from the lunar colony) have led the lunar colonists to abandon the moon in favour of colonising and terraforming Mars, using two space probes to redirect comets to hit the planet, releasing the gases and other substances needed to transform the atmosphere.  

The colonists have formed 3 distinct groups on the planet, one of which is headed by Ondray and Tugela, the other two by Tarragon (a former trainee priest on the moon, turned member of the resistance who leads New Tycho settlement) and by Mandelbrot (who has the Terranova settlement).  But there are problems in Terranova – discontent has been stoked by Tolly Hoppa who wants to abandon the Mars project altogether and return to the moon.  But to do this means summoning the Ship, which has already set off for the cometary cloud beyond Neptune to investigate a disturbance that has increased the number of comets hurtling towards Mars and Earth, and with the Ship’s priority being to preserve human life, there is no way of getting it back before its mission is complete.

Meanwhile the Ship – led by the Link and Lagrange but answering to a cloned version of Ondray – continues to see Link and Lagrange fight for control over the vessel (and, correspondingly, the best way to protect humanity).  But this fight will soon seem trivial once they get to the cometary cloud and discover that something’s there – something literally out of this world – and they’re very curious about us …

John Gribbin’s science fiction novella is a sequel to DOUBLE PLANET and REUNION but while I hadn’t read those books, he gives enough information to be able to follow the plot.  I found the writing a little workmanlike and the science was, for me, quite difficult to follow, but the ideas are interesting, as are the situations that the characters find themselves in – especially the terraforming of Mars – such that it’s definitely worth a look.

Gribbin has thoughtfully included a ‘backdrop’ introduction to the book, which sets out the salient plot points from DOUBLE PLANET and REUNION, but I also found that the information he seeds through the main chapters themselves give enough information to work out what’s happened and who the characters are.  He also gives a brief summary of what Alice matter (or dark matter is), which I did find helpful given that my knowledge of hard science is slim to none but I have to say that despite this I did find it a little difficult to follow exactly what was happening when it came to the encounter between the Ship and the People and although I understood a little of the interaction between the two (notably the effect of the People’s probe on the Sun’s surface temperature) I didn’t quite understand all of it, which affected my enjoyment.  

Similarly, the chapters shown from the People’s point of view didn’t quite work for me because I wasn’t fully able to understand what their perception of the universe was because I’m not scientifically literate enough for it.  In particular, I didn’t understand why they were unaware of the consequences of their actions in the cometary cloud and whether they knew about displacement or not or if it simply wasn’t within their realm of perception and the final ‘encounter’ scene didn’t help me with this, which was a shame.

Writing wise, I have to say that I found the characters to be rather stock in nature and Tugela in particular (who we’re told was a hero on the moon) has very little to do except be supportive to Ondray.  Ondray himself has a bit of a 50s SF vibe to him – the leader trying to do the right thing and I wanted more sense of his emotions, especially in a scene towards the end of the book where he takes a set back in far too perfunctory a manner.

The descriptions of terraforming Mars worked well and I liked the way Gribbin shows the effect of the comet impacts on the climate and how there is still much work to do.  Also good is the unintended consequences of that climate on the existing geology, something that I had never thought of before but which is clearly something Gribbin has given considerable attention to.  However the ending didn’t really gel for me – partly because it leaves the way open for a further sequel – and I can’t say that I would hurry to read that sequel.

Ultimately, this is an okay read that did keep me turning the pages but I’m not normally one for ‘hard’ SF and this book hasn’t made me reevaluate that opinion – although if you are into it, then there’s much here for you to enjoy.

Thanks to PS Publishing for the review copy of this book.

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