Books: Anvil of Stars

Anvil of Stars is the sequel to Greg Bear’s The Forge of God. While the previous novel dealt with human reactions to the impending end of the world, this book chronicles what follows: the journey of a small group of human survivors whose purpose is to find and destroy whatever race of beings is responsible for the destruction of Earth.

The larger part of the remnant of humanity – rescued by some other unknown alien group referred to only as the Benefactors – has been settled on New Mars, a newly terraformed version of the Red Planet. But the Benefactors require that a group of children from a destroyed planet set out on a Ship of the Law to bring the Killers to justice.

By the time the novel starts, they aren’t exactly “children” anymore – the youngest of them are teens, and their current leader is in his early twenties. But they continue to be referred to as “the children,” which I found somewhat discordant. Perhaps it emphasizes their sense of dependence on the “moms” – robots belonging to the Ship of the Law who have taught them the Law and trained them for war with the Killers.

I couldn’t help comparing this book with two other novels. Since the early part of the novel deals with children training for war with an alien race, the natural comparison was to Ender’s Game.

In Card’s book there are adult humans in charge – they simply choose not to intervene in some cases, forcing Ender to rely on his own resources rather than turning to adults for help. Children are divided into armies, and conflicts between them are not restricted to the training exercises.

Bear’s depiction of children training for war is surprisingly peaceful in comparison. A few children have committed suicide (not too surprising, perhaps, considering how much all of them have lost), but their aggression seems to be channeled toward the Killers, and they are impatient to be done just training and move on to doing “the Job.”

To me, this is all the more surprising because Martin (the current leader, selected from among the children by majority vote) is not a charismatic leader. Card’s Ender inspired devotion among the members of his army; Martin worries too much about whether the other children like him, and he finds it difficult to take decisive action.

The other comparison that comes to mind is Lord of the Flies. Admittedly, the children in that book are truly children, not teenagers. They do not have a shared history, and they are truly on their own in terms of survival. The crew of the Dawn Treader in Bear’s novel have their physical needs met by the “moms” as well as receiving training and a sense of purpose.

Still, I can’t help wondering how realistic it is that a group of young people with no adult (i.e. human) leaders manages to establish as stable a society as they do. They make major decisions by meeting together and discussing the issue then taking a vote. The group is not without internal tensions, but serious violence among them only occurs later, after a number of years of life on the ship (and after their first attempted attack on a planet with a Killer history, with disastrous consequences).

Perhaps one is to attribute the stability of the children’s society to psychological testing the children had to undergo before being selected for this mission. Yet serious conflicts do develop among them late in the book. Are we to think that only the stress of encounter with another race of intelligent beings (one of the more interesting aspects of the latter third or so of the book) and the possible discovery of the Killers’ home push them over the edge?

One sentence I found very interesting comes at nearly the end of the book.

Of all the illusions of childhood, the one he hated to lose most was this: that humans worked according to unspoken but noble goals, that they followed an intrinsic path to justice, that they would resist error and move toward self-understanding.

I find it more surprising that a group of children cut off from the rest of human society could have held onto at least the appearance of those ideals for so long.

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