This fast science fiction novel works toward love and peace as scientists battle to save humanity.
In David Levin’s optimistic science fiction novel Phase Rider, humanity’s survival is threatened.
A wave of destructive energy is spreading from the outer reaches of the universe at a rapid pace, destroying and restructuring all matter that it touches. On Earth, Doctor Lewellen watches as the destruction approaches our solar system. Though humanity’s fate seems sealed, Lewellen—together with his colleague and friend, Doctor Ayana—looks for a way to stop the destruction. Then, an unlikely hero appears.
The story is built on questionable scientific foundations. The spacecraft sent to stop the destruction relies on anti-gravity technology, but glosses over anti-gravity theory to function and is presented simply as alien tech. Scientists are universally referred to as “doctor,” without regards to their more specialized titles.
Ayana’s expertise strains credulity; he’s a mathematician, but is portrayed as an expert on astrophysics, nuclear physics, and bioengineering, too. The world is not credibly constructed, either. Apart from the technology involved in preventing the end of the Earth, characters’ technological interactions are with smartphones and face-to-face calls, the terminology of the latter indicating that it’s considered a novelty.
Lewellen and Ayana are underdeveloped leads. Their inner thoughts and emotions are not explored, and their individual characteristics are limited. The same is true of Bobby, the story’s unexpected hero.
Ayana and Bobby are described in problematic ways: Ayana is Ethiopian, and his features are stereotypically described as those of a South Saharan African, while Bobby, who has Down syndrome, is described as having “oriental” features. Further, people with Down syndrome are spoken of as if they are of lesser intelligence and need to be cured in order to lead normal lives.
Bobby is a heartbreaking character who stands out as he searches for a father figure to love him. A scientist, Jessup, who is working on a cure for Down syndrome and who does testing on Bobby, allows the young man to develop a father-son relationship with him; this calls Jessup’s ethics into question, but the conflict is not addressed, and Jessup is portrayed as Bobby’s benefactor and protector.
Though the book is a quick read, it is unevenly paced. Chapters that propel the story forward are intermingled with chapters that are bogged down by difficult-to-follow scientific explanations. Conversations are clunky and exposition laden as, for example, characters explain to one another how they know each other. The scene setting is minimal, and there’s a limited sense of place.
The plot elements tie together as the book ends on a positive note, and human beings learn to put their differences aside. Phase Rider is a succinct science fiction novel with a message of love and peace, but with some problematic features.
Erika Harlitz Kern
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