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Farside Cannon by Roger MacBride Allen3.5 stars

Buy from IndieBoundFarside Cannon is a solid hard SF epic detailing a global (indeed, systemwide) conflict that arises when a massive asteroid called Cornucopia is captured and brought towards a low Earth orbit so that it can be mined. Garrison Morrow is a geologist from the lunar colonies who is working on a massive dig in a remote area of Iceland, looking for direct remnants of the huge asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. (I thought that thing hit off the coast of Yucatán? Oh well, who cares.) Yet from the start, the dig is plagued by spies — one of whom is the woman Morrow has been sleeping with — and sabotage, and it is only by the greatest good fortune that Morrow uncovers the evidence he needs at the eleventh hour. Clearly the mining companies know Morrow’s intent and do not want him to succeed.

Morrow’s intent is to inform the public of the potential risks of Cornucopia: that in a few hundred years its alarmingly low orbit will decay, and the asteroid will still be of a size to pose a serious threat to life on Earth. The core samples Morrow unearthed in Iceland provide the compelling evidence he needs to drive the message home to even the most skeptical ears.

Unfortunately, he makes a gross error of judgment and allows a known anti-mining fringe group to broadcast his message to the world as well as the various colonies scattered throughout the solar system, whose economies rely largely on asteroid mining. Said fringe group immediately re-edits Morrow’s broadcast to meet its own fanatical political agenda (among other things, they announce the asteroid will crash within two or three years), and the resulting global hysteria turns Morrow and his colleague Ben, who is perhaps his only remaining friend, into fugitives. The two men return to Morrow’s home on the lunar colonies, only to find they are in no less trouble there. The governor of the lunar colonies has, shall we say, interests in Cornucopia, and no sooner have Morrow and Ben landed than they’re forced to relocate to the desolate station on Farside, accessible only by a single highway that circles the moon at its equator.

Yet when they reach Farside, Morrow finds that a complex array of communications lasers are under construction by an automated factory — and he gets a bright idea. To give away any more from this point would be criminal.

In this early effort, Allen already proves himself adept at juggling the most intricate of plots. Farside Cannon sports espionage, duplicity, political machinations to make John le Carré stand up and take notice. And it’s all dished out in the context of a fast-paced story populated by believable, sympathetic characters. Allen smartly avoids cliché by making very few of the characters (only one, to be honest about it) an out-and-out villian — and he actually keeps a very low profile throughout the story. At center stage is a realistic depiction of the sort of ridiculous confusion that arises in times of political turmoil. When Morrow implements his go-for-broke plan to save the earth from Cornucopia, he touches off a powder keg between the earth, the moon, and the settlers on Mars and in the asteroids that could very well lead to the first war in space.

Occasionally Allen cannot avoid a bit of melodrama. (Particularly in passages like, “She would be the first woman in history literally to move worlds just to please her man.” Urgh. Let’s send that one back to 1958 where it belongs.) Some lesser characters are not fleshed out so well. But this is offset for the most part by some superb wit, particularly in the area of political satire. I got a particular kick out of Allen’s depiction of the lunar colony and its rather unique rules and various subcultures. And the climax is suitably exciting. Do yourself a favor and fire up Farside Cannon.