The destruction of the earth takes forty-five minutes in Greg Bear’s The Forge of God (1987). One must credit Mr. Bear for a degree of originality and skill in depicting this apocalyptic conclusion which is foregone almost from the beginning of the novel. Seen from a distance out in space, clouds of steam shoot up from fault lines and deep sea trenches as thousands of hydrogen bombs and a neutronium device at the core of the earth explode. Fire erupts, continents disappear, explosions of ever growing intensity follow, and the earth begins to expand as it slowly disintegrates. This was unsettling. It is probably the most unsettling account of the earth’s end of any that I have seen or read. Not that I seek such accounts out.
The basic cause of this destruction is an alien race of robots attracted to the earth by electronic signals (television, radio, radar, and so on) that make them aware that the plant might be worth visiting. The alien robots roam across the cosmos seeking out viable planets that they consume for fuel. An opposing race of robots tracks them and tries to save targeted planets. The alien robots plant false leads so that humans will not notice what they are really up to, and by the time humans figure it all out, all is lost. Bear moves from one individual or group of individuals to another and describes how they react to and prepare for the earth’s end. The U. S. President decides, not very helpfully, that the earth’s impending doom is a sign of God’s vengeance on a world that has failed to measure up. He advises everyone to pray. Needless to say, this is not helpful, and prayers go unanswered. Scientists and military men consider various ways of combatting the aliens, but their plans don’t succeed. Other people go on with their lives as if nothing is going to happen. In fact, many embrace illusions of normalcy right up until the end. Some choose locations where they want to be (one group chooses Yosemite Park) when the moment arrives.
Bear is effective at building tension and anticipation. Like many novelists, he embeds the dramatic moments of his story in long stretches of narrative where not much is taking place: he describes character histories, friendships, marriages, personal and professional conflicts, and so on. This is a way of treading narrative water. It is also a way of dramatizing what is about to be lost. This novel specifically reminded me of Nevil Shute’s novel about the end of the world via nuclear fallout, On the Beach (1957), and the film adaptation (1959; dir. Stanley Kramer).
Greg Bear would probably agree with Stephen Hawking and others who oppose attempts to contact aliens or to announce our existence to the cosmos. We can’t assume that anyone out there who might respond to such entreaties would be friendly. Of course, in this novel, aliens do not respond to messages of welcome—they simply notice we are here.
Although portions of this book were a slog, it had its moments, especially towards the end, and it held my attention.