(Earthlight, £10.00, 505 pages, trade paperback; published 20
August 2001. Mass market paperback £6.99, 498 pages, published
4 November 2002; ISBN 0-7434-2902-8.)
There are two reasons why I might read a book very fast: it's either
because I absolutely
love it and can't help but power through to the conclusion, or it's
because it has some sparking, fizzing ideas that, because they're dampened
by soggy prose, I want to follow through to their conclusion as quickly
As you may have already guessed, I read Wheelers pretty quickly.
In the 23rd century humanity is slowly emerging from the Pause, a century-long
global rejection of technology that engulfed the planet following the
destruction of the first Martian colony after a computer error. A colony
of monks was left to fend for themselves in Earth orbit, and since then
they've done rather well for themselves in the mining and insurance
Now, though, the Earthbound remains of humanity are starting to look
outwards again and one of them, Prudence Odingo, has uncovered a cache
of wheeled alien artefacts on Callisto; but on her return to Earth she
is arrested for archaeological fraud and the 'Wheelers' are quickly
Fortunately for Prudence, her discovery soon looks to be vindicated
following some obviously artificial shifts in the orbits of the moons
of Jupiter. Unfortunately for humanity, these celestial machinations
seem designed to send a very large comet hurtling directly towards Earth...
Wheelers suffers badly from poor pacing; the characters are
introduced and subjected to plot development A, whereupon we suddenly
leap forward years to find that plot development A has led to outcome
B, which is in turn subjected to plot development C. For example, Prudence's
sister's son, Moses, more than anyone else, is at the mercy of these
arbitrary whims of the gods; his story reads somewhat like a thoroughly
unpleasant 23rd century update of Great Expectations. Moses turns
out to have the key to the book's central mystery, but quite how
or why is never explained -- he just does, which is most
unsatisfying in a book that in almost every other way seems scientifically
Stewart and Cohen do try and salt their narrative broth with some character
and sometimes it does work, but a story of this length and scope needs
to be held together by the linearity of its characters. There are great
hop, skip and jumps in time throughout Wheelers that need to
be bridged, but Moses is too weird to be able to accomplish this; Sir
Charles Dunsmore -- a reluctant villain if ever there was one -- although
a constant presence is just too sketchily drawn to allow us any purchase
upon the intricacies of the plot. Charity, Prudence's sister, is the
most consistent and believable character but she effectively disappears
midway through, whilst Prudence simply has no recognisably individual
character traits that I could see. I just couldn't make myself believe
that she was one of the few people on Earth to own a spaceship or that
she spent most of her life alone in space. If the writers were going
for a sort of 'Rocket Man' mundanity of space travel being 'just a job
five days a week' then they were successful, but I suspect they probably
Wheelers did remind me of Stephen Baxter's sf but mainly because
it serves to show what a very good writer Baxter is and how bloody hard
it is to actually do what he does -- which is produce big space adventures
based on hard science and populated by sympathetic, believable characters.
One thing I did like in Wheelers was the authors' refusal to
go along with any sort of superstition or pseudo-science: people's hunches
or superstitious beliefs are always shown to be at best foolish and
at worst deliberately fostered for the benefit of the unscrupulous.
Carl Sagan would be proud!
Stewart and Cohen seem to lack the writing ability to do justice to
the really stunningly big sf concepts that Wheelers needs if
it is to work properly as a book. Sadly their writing doesn't bring
out the visceral horror of Moses' young life and, at the other end of
the spectrum, depicts literally world-shaking events far too glibly,
such that their majesty and spectacle is lost.
I note that both of them are accomplished non-fiction authors so perhaps
this is a side-effect of rendering facts calmly and accurately, but
unfortunately it means their imaginative fiction falls rather flat.
Review by Stuart Carter.