The Ring of Charon

by Roger MacBride Allen

Cover image

Series: Hunted Earth #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: December 1990
ISBN: 0-8125-3014-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 500

Buy at Powell's Books

Larry Chao is a junior scientist at a gravity research on Pluto, at the very outer limits of human reach in the solar system. The facility is for researching artificial gravity, which is one reason it's in the middle of nowhere. Another is that their experimental generator is built in a ring around Charon, and the close proximity of the two bodies is useful for scientific observation. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much to observe. They can create very short-lived gravity fields in very small areas, but nothing like the artificial gravity that was the original promise of the facility.

As a result, the government is shutting the facility down. The authoritarian director, Simon Raphael, is... not exactly happy with that decision, but resigned to it and running the facility to completion with a sullen anger. When Larry makes a startling breakthrough at nearly the last minute for the society, Simon is uninterested and hostile. This leads Larry and his fellow scientist Sondra Berghoff to attempt a more radical demonstration of Larry's success and prove to the rest of the solar system that the facility should be kept open. That decision has a far deeper impact on humanity and the solar system than they could have possibly imagined.

The Ring of Charon and its sequel, Shattered Sphere, were recommended to me as good harder science fiction. It took me a while to track down copies — in fact, it took an in-person trip to Powell's. Once I found them, a relatively straightforward, old-school science fiction novel seemed like just the thing to read during my commute.

Allen delivers there. I'm not spoiling the main plot driver of the book even though it's given away on the back cover, since it's some time in coming in the novel. But The Ring of Charon turns into a multi-viewpoint cross between a disaster novel and a scientific investigation. Larry and Sondra stay central to the plot, of course, but Allen adds a variety of other characters who are attempting to figure out what happened to the solar system and then deal with the consequences: everyone from scientists to pilots to communications officers in weird surrealistic stations.

The science is mostly believable, apart from the scientific breakthrough that motivates the plot. Characterization isn't absent completely, but it's simple and unsubtle; dialogue is a bit wooden, characters aren't entirely multidimensional, but Allen does a reasonably good job with both pacing and the sense of mystery and investigation, and a surprisingly good job portraying organizational politics.

As you might guess from the tone of my review, this is not the book to reach for if you want something ground-breaking. It's a very conventional, multi-viewpoint SF novel full of scientists and investigation of unknown and possibly hostile phenomena. If you've read much science fiction, you've read books like this before. But one thing that Allen does surprisingly well, which makes The Ring of Charon stand a bit above the pack, is that he doesn't write villains. Even Simon, who goes out of his way to make the reader hate him at the start of the book, becomes a surprisingly sympathetic character. The characters who are usually villains or at least foils in books like this — the smooth PR person, the religious man, the blindly-focused scientist who isn't interested in anyone else's theories — never turn into caricatures, play important roles in the plot, and turn out to be competent in their fields of expertise.

There are actual villains, sort of, but I found myself feeling sympathetic even towards them, at least in places. Allen takes a rather old SF dodge to achieve conflict without an evil enemy, and, because of that, the end of the book felt like a bit of an anticlimax. But I did like the feel of the book where there isn't a good versus evil fight, just a wide variety of people (and others) trying to understand and control the universe in the best ways they know how.

I'm not sure I can quite recommend this book. The quality of the writing is not particularly high, and I'm not generally a fan of the disaster novel style of storytelling. But despite not being very original, there's just something likable about it. It moves along reasonably well for a 500 page book, and it's refreshingly light on irritating stereotypes. I think one has to be in the right mood when reading it and set expectations accordingly, but it fit what I was looking for when I picked it up.

One warning, though: although The Ring of Charon reaches a climax, the major plot conflict is not resolved at the end of this book, so you may want to have the sequel around.

Followed by Shattered Sphere.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-01-02

Last modified and spun 2015-01-03