The Shattered Sphere

by Roger MacBride Allen

Cover image

Series: Hunted Earth #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 1994
Printing: September 1995
ISBN: 0-8125-3016-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 491

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The Shattered Sphere is a direct sequel to The Ring of Charon and spoils everything about the plot of the first book. You don't want to start here. Also be aware that essentially everything you can read about this book will spoil the major plot driver of The Ring of Charon in the first sentence. I'm going to review the book without doing that, but it's unlikely anyone else will try.

The end of the previous book stabilized matters, but in no way resolved the plot. The Shattered Sphere opens five years later. Most of the characters from the first novel are joined by some new additions, and all of them are trying to make sense of a drastically changed and far more dangerous understanding of the universe. Humanity has a new enemy, one that's largely unaware of humanity's existence and able to operate on a scale that dwarfs human endeavors. The good news is that humans aren't being actively attacked. The bad news is that they may be little more than raw resources, stashed in a safe spot for future use.

That is reason enough to worry. Worse are the hints of a far greater danger, one that may be capable of destruction on a scale nearly beyond human comprehension. Humanity may be trapped between a sophisticated enemy to whom human activity is barely more noticeable than ants, and a mysterious power that sends that enemy into an anxious panic.

This series is an easily-recognized example of an in-between style of science fiction. It shares the conceptual bones of an earlier era of short engineer-with-a-wrench stories that are full of set pieces and giant constructs, but Allen attempts to add the characterization that those books lacked. But the technique isn't there; he's trying, and the basics of characterization are present, but with none of the emotional and descriptive sophistication of more recent SF. The result isn't bad, exactly, but it's bloated and belabored. Most of the characterization comes through repetition and ham-handed attempts at inner dialogue.

Slow plotting doesn't help. Allen spends half of a nearly 500 page novel on setup in two primary threads. One is mostly people explaining detailed scientific theories to each other, mixed with an attempt at creating reader empathy that's more forceful than effective. The other is a sort of big dumb object exploration that failed to hold my attention and that turned out to be mostly irrelevant. Key revelations from that thread are revealed less by the actions of the characters than by dumping them on the reader in an extended monologue. The reading goes quickly, but only because the writing is predictable and light on interesting information, not because the plot is pulling the reader through the book. I found myself wishing for an earlier era that would have cut about 300 pages out of this book without losing any of the major events.

Once things finally start happening, the book improves considerably. I grew up reading large-scale scientific puzzle stories, and I still have a soft spot for a last-minute scientific fix and dramatic set piece even if the descriptive detail leaves something to be desired. The last fifty pages are fast-moving and satisfying, only marred by their failure to convince me that the humans were required for the plot. The process of understanding alien technology well enough to use it the right way kept me entertained, but I don't understand why the aliens didn't use it themselves.

I think this book falls between two stools. The scientific mysteries and set pieces would have filled a tight, fast-moving 200 page book with a minimum of characterization. It would have been a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, but not a bad one. Allen instead wanted to provide a large cast of sympathetic and complex characters, and while I appreciate the continued lack of villains, the writing quality is not sufficient to the task.

This isn't an awful book, but the quality bar in the genre is so much higher now. There are better investments of your reading time available today.

Like The Ring of Charon, The Shattered Sphere reaches a satisfying conclusion but does not resolve the series plot. No sequel has been published, and at this point one seems unlikely to materialize.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-06-11

Last modified and spun 2022-06-12