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The Descent of Anansi
by Larry Niven & Steven Barnes
Tor, $7.99, 288pp
Published: April 1991

A year after 'Dream Park', Steven Barnes teamed up with Larry Niven again to publish a second, unrelated novel, 'The Descent of Anansi', which is a great deal shorter, but so full of action that I finished it in one night, even if it kept me up until six in the morning. I don't see that as a bad thing. The worst thing about the novel is easily the back cover blurb on the paperback, clearly the work of a copywriter who hadn't read the book and misunderstood what it was about.

What it isn't about is Falling Angel Enterprises. They're a research station in lunar orbit that was bankrolled by the US government and built out of the shells of space shuttles. However, many of the people at Falling Angel don't feel confident that the US is going to continue to support them and they're fearful that funding will end and the project with it. Their solution is to vote for independence and see how that plays out.

Entirely by coincidence, my Hugo-Award winner for this month is 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress', which is a heck of a lot closer to that summary than this is. Here, Falling Angel is just the means to set up the MacGuffin, which is a cable that genius metallurgist Dexter Stonecypher has extruded up there in zero gravity. It's only an eighth of a millimeter thick but fourteen hundred kilometers long and it's ten to twenty times stronger than Kevlar.

No wonder there's a bidding war and the Japanese beat out the Brazilians to purchase it, Oyama Industries seeing it as being critical to their survival. And so, with everything apparently squared away within three chapters, we're ready for delivery to be made and here's where the novel really kicks in.

The Anansi of the title is Falling Angel's newest shuttle, though it's not a new shuttle, having seen years of service for NASA. It's the ship given the honour of delivering the cable to Oyama in Japan, wound up into a large reel and secured within a re-entry pod that's attached to both the Anansi and the Gabriel, an ion drive tug responsible for getting the shuttle to Earth orbit where it can take over the mission.

It's no understatement to suggest that it's going to be an explosive mission but for two completely different reasons.

One is that a group of ambitious young senior execs at Brazil Techimetal and Electromotores aren't taking their loss in the bid for the cable lying down. They choose to gamble on an outrageous plan that only begins with hiring a bunch of Muslim terrorists and giving them a Prometheus missile that's able to down a space shuttle in Earth orbit.

The other can be found in the make-up of the Falling Angel crew, who are the best choices for the jobs at hand in every way except how they connect with each other. The Anansi will be piloted by Janet De Camp. Taking care of the Gabriel is her husband Thomas, from whom she's about to separate. And to co-pilot the Anansi, there's Marion Guiness, who's one of Janet's extra-marital former lovers. Also along for the ride is Dexter Stonecypher, who's keen to accompany the cable he designed even though he's not healthy enough to do so without serious risk.

So far, so straightforward, but there are twists and turns coming that work very well indeed. Let's just say that the Falling Angel crew is forced to do a lot more than just fly a cable to Japan and how they go about it makes one heck of a difference to their respective relationships.

Unsurprisingly, given that this is a Larry Niven novel, it's written from a scientific mindset. Many of the technologies involved are explained, not so much that they take over and bog down the story but enough for us to believe that they're both viable and appropriate for the task at hand. I'll assume at this point that Stephen Barnes has a similar approach to science fiction, but nobody would have known that in 1982 as he was still new and hadn't yet written a solo novel. Niven had a busy decade and a half behind him of books full of viable science and engineering.

What impressed me most was that The Descent of Anansi feels at once grounded in valid science and an action adventure space novel of the sort that tends to ignore science in favour of spectacle. It's really a disaster movie as a prose exercise and succeeds on all those fronts. Surely the biggest flaw in the author's thinking is in why, even if the Falling Angel crew were idiots, the Brazilians honestly believed they could get away with such an audacious plan.

I liked the characters, though the good guys come from a good old-fashioned scientific frontier stock company and the bad guys are clearly villains. It helps to know who root for when the sides are emphatically defined quicker than we expect. There's no mystery about the bad guys, only about how they plan to achieve their goals.

I found it interesting that everything stems from a US government operation but the Americans aren't really involved in the novel at all. While Falling Angel votes for independence and we know that the Earth knows about it, how it's going to happen is never entered into. It's as if that would take up a future novel, which I don't believe it did, though I'll find out in June if that much made it into 'The Barsoom Project', the first 'Dream Park' sequel which apparently references this book.

Instead, Falling Angel thinks of itself as independent as soon as the votes are counted and the bidding war narrows down to Brazil and Japan. The only other country involved in the story is Iran, because that's the location of the terrorists that the Brazilians hire to do some of their dirty work. The fact that the De Camps are a multi-racial couple is interesting too, partly just because and also because it's mentioned once and promptly ignored as a matter of no importance at all.

I'm presuming that race is going to be more important in the next book that Steven Barnes published. It's StreetLethal, his first solo novel, which came out in 1983 and which begins a trilogy about Aubrey Knight, a professional fighter in a future California, in which technological advance hasn't been accompanied by social advance. I look forward to reading it in 2020, which happens to be the year in which it was set! ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Steven Barnes click here
For more titles by Larry Niven click here

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