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Hegira: a planetary romance by Greg Bear
(Orion Millennium, 5.99, 222 pages, paperback; first published 1979, this edition 1999.)

This early novel (the first one he sold in fact) by Greg Bear, published in 1979, revised by the author in 1987 and now reissued by Millennium, is set in a world which at first seems technologically and socially mediaeval. It stars Bar-Woten or 'Bear-Killer', a swarthy middle-aged ex-soldier, Barthel his young Muslim-analogue servant and Kiril, a pale young scrittori (scholar) as a conventionally unlikely trio of adventurers.

Bar-Woten has absconded from a crusading army which is about as well-behaved and as popular with its neighbours as England's football fans are nowadays in Continental Europe. Barthel becomes more Bar-Woten's son than his servant; indeed, not long into the novel he is set free and decides to follow Bar-Woten of his own free will (this not unheard-of plot device surely has political implications, but I won't explore them here).

Kiril, meanwhile, is a confused young man whose religious fanaticism has been masking the grief he feels following the apparently supernatural loss of the woman he loves. The search that the three embark on is at once a search for this spirited-away woman, and a wisdom quest; the three are guided in this two-fold search by a few scraps of ancient wisdom.

This plot summary makes Hegira sound run-of-the-mill; a book worth passing the time with if ale-quaffing and horsemanship are your scene, but possibly not otherwise. The weaknesses of this novel include characterisation which is two point five rather than three-dimensional, so that I liked Bar-Woten and the others but couldn't care about them, and a serviceable rather than inspired use of language. To take one fight scene as an example of this:

"Something blinding flashed over them. [Kiril's] hair caught fire, and for an instant, amazed, he stood like a torch. Bar-Woten reached up and pulled him off the rock, smothering his head in a coat. When he removed the coat, the Mediwevan was unconscious. His scalp hadn't been burned..."

Not enough rhythm here, not enough narrative drive or involvement - and though there are mishaps, some grievous, befall during this quest, there's no real dark night of the soul. It proceeds too comfortably and steadily and so the result never seems in doubt.

Still, there's definitely something about Hegira. It intrigued (and will continue to, I believe) if it didn't grip. Moreover, its weaknesses are the function of ambition rather than laziness. This novel is, I feel, an experimental creature, a hybrid organism which contains genetic material from three different genres.

First, the heroic fantasy quest.

Second, the short (and this is a short novel, not one of your sprawling thousand-pagers) Borgesian meditation on the nature of the text and the meaning of life. The world of Hegira is studded with Obelisks, "an enigma unchanged across the whole history of the Second-born" (which is what Hegira's inhabitants call themselves for reasons which become clear). These structures, "a thousand kilometres tall, a kilometre across each side and as perfectly square as anyone could measure," record the histories, philosophies, and sacred texts of the First-Born; because no-one has ever been able to ascend higher than ten kilometres by balloon, only a fraction of what the Obelisks record has ever been read. So far.

Third, the 'Big Dumb Object' story (think Rendezvous with Rama), in which the technical, motivational, even ontological riddles posed by the existence of an anomalous object provide the story's main interest. In this case, the world, which is three-quarters of a million miles in circumference yet has earth-normal gravity, seems impossible given the laws of physics which we know.

Greg Bear isn't Borges, and the eventual hard-science explanation and the result of the wisdom quest don't, even between them, quite tie up all the novel's loose ends or apparent paradoxes. Admittedly, this might be deliberate - in art as in life, it's sometimes just one damn thing after another, and often they refuse to answer our questions. But whether you like horses or prefer big-concept Amazing Science Tales SF, there's enough for you here. Once heard, the endlessly re-echoing final chord of the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life' stays with you; the same may be true of Hegira, but ask me again in five years.

Review by David Curl.

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© John D Owen 8 July 2000