The first time I started writing this review, it ballooned into an essay on extraterrestrial life, anthropocentrism, and the importance of imagination. That essay should be up on the site by now, so I’ll let you read about the universe’s habitable zone for yourself, and try not to subject you to the same rants in this review. It’s just that the underlying premise of Forward’s entire novel is so absolutely fascinating, and completely mind-expanding. Put simply, it is everything science fiction is supposed to be.
I like to consider myself open-minded, and I have long argued for the inadequacy of our definition of life and the limiting ways in which we conduct our search for extraterrestrial beings, but even I would not have considered the possibility of life existing on a neutron star. Sometimes, I think the more we know about a thing, the more limited our view of it becomes. It’s not that I had dismissed the possibility of life existing on the surface of a neutron star, but that I had never even considered it. Fortunately, Dragon’s Egg corrected that unfortunate deficit.
Like so much science fiction from people like Asimov, Forward, Niven, and others of that era, Dragon’s Egg is rigorously researched, contains vast amounts of supporting materials, and exhibits a ferocious level of attention to detail and thoroughness in the designs, calculations, and ideas presented. Also like other, similar works, it contains a sort of encyclopedia entry in the back pertaining to the mission, part of the conceit involved in the writing, a sort of framing story. As interesting as I found discussions of magnetic monopoles, neutron dominant matter, heat engines, and radio astronomy, perhaps the most fascinating implication of Forward’s “cheela” (the residents of the neutron star) is their ultra-fast (from a human perspective) lifecycle.
Although to them they are living in the same relative time as a human, compared to human lifecycles, the aliens are living one million times faster. The way the book is structured, we are able to experience the entire evolution of the cheela species, from the first lifeforms emerging out of the neutron star’s version of the primordial soup, to the evolution of animal life, to the development of intelligence, to migrations, the rise and fall of civilizations, and eventually the attainment of a state far in advance of humanity. When the humans first establish contact with the cheela, they are in a state perhaps akin to ancient Egypt. Before the visit is finished, the cheela have become capable of faster-than-light travel.
A side effect of this is that, much like the human characters in the book experience, the reader is given only brief glimpses of any given period or character out of cheela development, which can sometimes make the story feel choppy or foreshortened. It could take time to pick up each new thread and understand each new character, and even more to understand how they fit into the last segment. For the most part, I found this an advantage, but it was disorienting in places. It also means that, like so much of the similar science fiction we’ve reviewed here on the site, there is not a lot of character development, or even opportunity for it.
It’s always interesting to see what predictions science fiction authors will make about the future. The start of the human element to this story is set about the year 2000. They have clunky, mainframe-style computers that they still must pay for time on and involve large printouts, barely an upgrade from punch cards. Within twenty years (in the book), the humans are still using clunky computing systems, but have discovered the magnetic monopole, which has led them to controlled, net-positive fusion, and the ability to build a manned spacecraft capable of creating a system of hyper-condensed asteroid objected to shield itself from the extreme gravity of a neutron star. They also have detected four miniature black holes inside of the sun, which ends up coming back around at the end of the story, but that’s beyond the score of the review.
If you like hard science fiction, astrophysics, unique, imaginative aliens, and (perhaps ironically) paleoanthropology, you should find the time to read Dragon’s Egg. My only complaint about the book, such as it is, would be that the cheela, for all their utterly alien physiology, behave in many ways like humans throughout their cultural/societal evolution. It is still interesting, and it works for the story, but it would have been even more interesting if Forward had extrapolated further from the unique cultural elements he did introduce, and make the cheela just that little bit more alien. That is a minor point, however, and does not change that I highly encourage you consider reading Dragon’s Egg. There may not be any dragons, but there are amorphous, twelve-eyed aliens living on the surface of a neutron star, and what more could a reader ask?