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    Review of BUILDING HARLEQUIN'S MOON by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper (see her website)

    Tor, June 2005

    Fleeing from an Earth that was being destroyed by nanotechnology run amuck, by artificial intelligences who were too busy with their own concerns to handle the day-to-day management of food and shelter, and with an ecology destroyed by human activities, the inhabitants of the spaceship John Glenn had a dream of a new world to terraform, to create a paradise that would be what earth could have been. There, the 'earthborn' promise that they'll swear off nanotechnology, allow their bodies to age and die. But there's a crisis on the way there. Instead of the paradise of Ymir, John Glenn is stranded at a solar system with no rocky planets. Only two gas giants, one brutally near the sun, and another in an orbit as far from the sun as Saturn is from Sol, offer promise.

    To fulfill their dreams and reach Ymir, the colonists must first terraform one of the moons of Harlequin, the more distant gas giant. It can never be a paradise, but it can be enough to allow them to construct the antimatter they need to resume their journey--even if it does take sixty thousand years.

    Time is not quite so big a deal to colonists who spend most of their time frozen, with nanomachines healing and restructuring their bodies. The original colonists are still around when Harlequin's moon is finally inhabitable. The colonists establish a minicolony there--one that will help build the machinery needed to create the antimatter needed to send John Glenn to its long hoped-for destination. Unfortunately, there will be no room for the children--the moonborn. When John Glenn leaves, they'll be left on a moon that will only be inhabitable for a few hundred years. Conflict between the moonborn and the earthborn colonists seems inevitable. Equally inevitable, the only possible solution is one that the colonists cannot agree to--giving the moonborn the very technologies that destroyed Earth and that the colonists are fleeing.

    Authors Larry Niven (see more reviews of novels by Niven) and Brenda Cooper create a powerful and believable sequence of world-building writ large. Slamming together moons, building Saturn-like rings to protect the moon from Harlequin's radiation, creating oceans and atmosphere all take time, but can ultimately be accomplished using the technology that the colonists fear. The conflict between moonborn and earthborn is equally inevitable--with both sides having sympathetic arguments on their side.

    Several flaws keep me from giving this story my highest recommendation. First, it's hard to see how moonbuilding was an efficient means of reaching the John Glenn objectives. First, in the sixty thousand years it took to create the moon, they could have found other ways to build the antimatter machinery (a large accelerator). If the moon had been populated with millions or tens of millions of residents, I could understand it, but for the couple of thousand that seemed its largest population? Second, the ultimate solution is technically too easy. Third, I'm having trouble seeing how Saturn-orbit would be a good idea for something that's ultimately solar-powered (the energy to create antimatter has to come from the star, ultimately). All of these weaken the story, but the key weakness is the lack of story goal for the protagonist, Rachel Vanowen. Everone loves Rachel and she's a natural leader. But Rachel is mad when she's frozen for twenty years and loses her boyfriend. Still, pique doesn't make a goal--and Rachel never really gets a goal other than, eventually, an irrational fear of antimatter and a wish for a Gandi-style peaceful resistance resolution to the problem. Niven and Cooper make this work by ducking the fundamental moral question in the end.

    So, what a mixture. Powerful world-building. Really interesting questions about ecology, AI's (artificial intelligences), nanotechnology, interpersonal relationships that evolve over tens of thousands of years, duty to one's children--and a protagonist who just can't bear the weight of all of these fascinating questions. Niven and Cooper (mostly Cooper, I think, given the nature of these collaborations) string together words well and make the story easy to read despite the flaws.

    Two Stars

    Reviewed 5/17/06

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