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Mission to Minerva by James P. Hogan
Review by Ernest Lilley
Baen Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0743499026
Date: 01 May, 2005 List Price $26.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

The good news is that Mission to Minerva is an action packed story that ties up a lot of loose ends in the Giants saga. The bad news is it doesn?t get moving until the second half of the book.

If you've read any of the Giants stories you know that there was a planet called Minerva where now there's an asteroid belt, and that despite it having a transplanted population of peaceful humans, something went wrong and vicious warfare broke out, ultimately destroying the planet and setting the moon adrift until it took up with the Earth. If you didn't know any of that, stop and read Hogan's first, and still best, book: Inherit the Stars. We?ll wait for you. Read all the others while you?re at it. They're not as good, but the same cast comes along in each, getting a bit bigger each book, and you'll get really attached to them.

The first character introduced in these stories happens to be a soldier who died on the moon 50 thousand years ago, a contradiction that makes that book a terrific scientific whodunit, and starts a thread that is almost resolved here. The main point of view character through all this is a precocious British engineer named Victor Hunt that's been out solving mysteries and generally saving the day throughout it all.

In the interim, we've discovered the race of aliens known to humans as the Giants and who call themselves Thuriens. Originally, they lived on Minerva and transported humans around between worlds trying to make up for some bad decisions they made when they first thought they?d colonize Earth. We've also met some of the humans they took home with them; people who didn't adapt well to the peaceful society of the Giants and ultimately created the mess our world is today.

Though those folks have been dealt with in previous books, both the Thuriens and Terrans would like to settle the nature or nurture question once and for all. If humans aren't noble savages at heart, despite the Thurien abhorrence of violence, and unbeknownst to the Terrans, a final solution might just be required. And the gun is secretly already in place! Perhaps not to exterminate us, but at least to keep us from infecting the galaxy with our evil ways.

How to settle this question once and for all? Go back in time to before the Minervan humans suddenly became cold blooded killers and see what might have happened if reason and trust had been watchwords of the day.

Fortunately, at the beginning of this book we get a little help from some friends which leads us to develop the ability to jump not only into other universes?but to do so at any time we?d like. Say fifty thousand years ago. Pick one enough like ours to make for a good case study, and presto, you?ve got a lab for behavioral experiments, or a world to save, depending on how you look at it.

How Hogan looks at it is as much a function of his origins as the alien's, demonstrating that you can take the Brit out of the country, but you can't take the country out of Brit.

Though the story, and the author has set it in the US (and a few distant planets) since its start, very British notions about socialist democracy still dominate the story line.

The Giants have been around long enough to set up bases on earth back when Neanderthals were top dog. And they just don't get the whole competition rather than cooperation thing about life on earth and in this extended visit to their home world Hogan waxes wistful about a society that trusts leaders who are best suited for their jobs because they're the obvious choice, and where the accumulation of material wealth is a trait that would elicit concern in one's friends.

He attributes this difference between us and them to partly the dog eat dog nature of terrestrial life and partly to the relative youthfulness of our society.

Unless I missed it, he doesn't give much thought to scarcity of resources or population pressures. He claims that we've missed the boat by focusing on materialism rather the emotional side of things. The question that this begs, all too often, is which emotions one is talking about? Does he really think that the mindsets he dislikes are dispassionate ones? Or does he mean empathetic where he says emotional?

It's easy for Hogan's aliens to eschew drives to acquire things like money and power, since they each seem to have unlimited wealth, super-technology, and free time. But when his main point of view character, Dr. Hunt, turns down a movie deal playing himself with his choice of leading ladies the producer can't believe it and Hunt wonders if he is starting to think like an alien.

But that's disingenuous on the author's part. Hunt is at the time speaking on a phone from another star system where he was whisked at no personal cost to the center of what he has to consider the most exciting research opportunity of all time, and one for which he's a key player. Money? Fame? Starlets? And give up all that? So far throughout the series he's had all he could want in each category?so saying no isn?t that odd.

An interesting side effect of the parallel universes that this story is on about is that there is a certain amount of bleed between universes. If you thought you had left your keys on the table but find them in your pocket, maybe you're not losing you mind, just your universe. We don't follow that thought very far, but you can see the author finds it more comforting than the memory lapse alternative.

While Hogan does considerably more pontificating about society and human nature in this book than usual, and the usual has a fair bit, it's mostly in the first half of the book. When we get to the second, with the viewpoint switching to Minerva just before the war breaks out, things get much more interesting.

The short version is that in trying to avert a war Hunt and the Thuriens wind up closer to its outbreak than they had planned and get caught in the crossfire, with no way to get home...some fifty thousand years and a universe or two away. The long version is more fun, but you'll have to read it for yourself. If you're a fan, as I am, of the Giants stories, you shouldn?t need much urging, but if you?re just coming to them go back and start at the beginning.

Hogan could have ended the story here, but he left himself plenty of room to play with when he decides to write more. I'm hoping that someday he will wrap this all up with an actual ending?and I'm hoping that Charlie, the character we first met herding a band of survivors from a doomed world across the scarred face of the moon is there to take his bow. As Hunt points out, they might well have met him already during their trip to Minerva's past. If so, we may well meet him again.

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