Harlequin's Moon


Brenda Cooper & Larry Niven


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

July 14, 2006

The premise of the book sounds great: a starship full of humans is fleeing from our Earth, which has been lost to runaway nanotechnology and out-of-control Artificial Intelligences. The starship (The John Glenn) unfortunately has a damaged ram-scoop, and so can not make it to the target star of Ymir, but instead "barely makes it" to a red dwarf star system which has a Jupiter-sized planet called Harlequin. The passengers on the John Glenn need a whole bunch more anti-matter to resume their voyage, but there aren't any earthlike planets nearby, so they decide to construct a small planetoid out of asteroids and comets - and place this moon around Harlequin. (Why not place it around the red dwarf sun?) The moon will be terraformed, an antimatter collider will be constructed, and the John Glenn will resume it's voyage. An idea with lots of possibilities, right? Besides, Larry Niven has written great stuff in the past, so this book had a lot of promise.

Unfortunately, I don't think Larry Niven wrote a word of this. He may have helped Brenda Cooper with a plot outline, but no professional writer would produce so faulty a book. Where was the editor? This book is deeply flawed, and if it didn't have Niven's name on it, it would not have been published.

The problems start right from the beginning - it takes 60,000 years for them to assemble Harlequin's Moon! What kind of strategy is this? The entire Milky Way galaxy rotates in 250,000 years - who knows where Ymir will be in that amount of time. Where do they find the energy to propel 10 or 12 huge comet/asteroids into assembling the moon if they are all out of antimatter? Most of the passengers are sleeping for the 60,000 years. When a passenger does wake, nanobots repair the damage in every single cell of their body, which essentially renders the passengers immortal - live a few decades, then go into the sleep tank, and wake up with a completely young and restored body. Too bad the characters don't act like they have lived thousands of years...

If the passengers are fleeing out of control nanotechnology - why is it present in their every cell? It turns out they use nanobots in the very air of the John Glenn. They use nanobots to build the Refuge (a big shield from solar flares). They even use nanobots to build the bigger components of the antimatter collider - which left me thinking - why spend 60,000 years terraforming a stupid moon, when the nanobots could have constructed their antimatter collider in a few decades? But the colonists don't want to risk runaway nanobots! So the reader sees nothing but benign and useful nanotechnology, which could easily resolve this silly plot of the stranded spaceship, but instead a contrived plot device prevents the John Glenn from using it, and instead we proceed down this ridiculous road of the 60,000 year terraforming project. Here is the scheme - since nanobots can't be trusted to build the anti-matter collider, the spaceship will terraform a moon, populate it with generations of their children to run the machine, and when enough anti-matter is created the John Glenn will resume its journey, abandoning all their children on this small moon, which is unstable - and so they entire will all perish a century after the John Glenn departs! What an absurd and immoral idea! And yet all the passengers of the John Glenn seem to think this a good plan. Imagine if the early US pioneers traveling from the east coast to California stopped in Kansas and had a baby. Would they refer to their child as "Kansas-born"? (All the children born on Harlequin's Moon are refered to as "Moon Born") Can you imagine those pioneers abandoning their Kansas-born children so that they might get to California more easily?

Many flaws in this novel. When they do start to populate Harlequin's Moon, they are dismayed to discover the sun has violent solar flares which require everyone to seek shelter - they have been in this star system for 60,000 years, and nobody noticed the solar flares up until that point?? They build a big lake on the Moon, and it has 40 foot tides - how is this possible, where does the water go? Note that Lake Superior on Earth doesn't have tides because it is landlocked. The tides in our oceans are caused by water rushing to the other part of the globe flowing the moon as the earth rotates below it. At one point, the Moon Born are rebellious because they haven't been given enough work or authority on the anti-matter project - it is unclear why this happens - after all, the whole point of raising generations of Moon Born is so that they could run the anti-matter machinery, so why then aren't they given the training to do exactly that? The rebellious Moon Born stage a work slow down, and the schedule slips out. Furious, the starship sends down armed guards - but who thinks is this a good strategy? How will presence of the armed guards encourage better productivity? And who cares if they fall a few weeks behind schedule - they have spent 60,000 years on this project, a few weeks are irrelevant!

The focus of this novel is Rachel. We are constantly told that Rachel is a great leader. All the Moon Born love and respect Rachel, even though she is only a teenager and has never demonstrated any amazing abilities. When Rachel is 17, she is invited to the John Glenn, apparently so she can be trained to be a leader. But for some reason, Rachel is put into a sleep storage tank for 20 years - and there is no explanation for this. Why put a perfectly healthy young woman into a sleep storage tank? I guess because the plot required her to spend 20 years in hibernation. When Rachel returns to the Moon 20 years later, everyone still remembers her and thinks she is the cat's pajamas.

I have written too much already, but there are plenty more stupid flaws in the plot and characterization of this book. It is sad to read in the foreward that Brenda Cooper calls this a multi-year project - imagine spending years on a manuscript, only to produce something so lame? This should never have been published, perhaps a few more years on the project would have salvaged it, but the publisher must have wanted to cash in on Larry Niven's name. (And what's with the cover? That has nothing to do with the story!)