Warning: This review contains spoilers; but no worse than my copy of this book, which had a mammoth spoiler in the blurb…
This is a divided novel that sets off in various different directions and ends up in none of them. It is set in the extended Cold War period that never happened, in a future where the USA and the Soviets have extensive assets in low Earth orbit and on the Moon. A previously-unknown near-Earth asteroid is detected that then defies all the laws of physics by decelerating and taking up Earth orbit. It is explored and found to be hollow, and showing evidence of having been built by advanced humans from an alternate universe, who are no longer in residence.
And inside it is a chamber that goes on forever.
The novel follows a number of different characters: one of the US officials managing the process of exploring the artifact; a female mathematician who is recruited to the expedition (for what reason she cannot initially understand); a Soviet Spetnaz officer detailed to take part in a mission to seize the asteroid; and one of the inhabitants of the asteroid, embroiled in the politics of the human descendants of the asteroid’s builders.
The novel starts out as a Cold War version of Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama; but once the plot reveal has been made, the focus changes and the events and worlds of the space-time corridor known as “the Way” become the major plot drivers, and even the outbreak of thermo-nuclear war on Earth doesn’t change the focus very much. (Interestingly, although the novel takes place in a Cold War that never happened, I didn’t find this too much of a problem; just as in the novel, the asteroid has come from an alternate reality, so it becomes easy to think of the action taking place in another, different alternate future…)
This is essentially a puzzle book, exploring the ideas behind constructing whole worlds out of the mathematical manipulation of space-time. Even the main characters are subservient to this plot; Patricia Vasquez, the mathematician, finds herself becoming more embroiled in the politics of the asteroid as it turns out that her alternate-reality version wrote the equations that allowed the Way to be brought into existence. The Way can be manipulated to open portals onto other worlds, and her aim is to open a portal in the Way onto an alternate Earth where the nuclear war never happened and her family are still alive. The other primary focus character is Pavel Mirsky, an officer in the Soviet strike force. He is examined in some detail, especially as he adapts to changing situations and has to work through conflict with both the (mainly) Americans occupying the asteroid and his own superiors, in the form not so much as his commanding officers but the Red Army Politruks (political officers) who have very different views to him over what needs to be done.
Oddly, what appears to be the main p.o.v. character, the American bureaucrat Garry Lanier, doesn’t really engage with the plot and events in the way the other characters do; he is a sort of lens through which the action of the novel is viewed. And Olmy, the Way inhabitant, spends more of his time explaining the politics and history of the asteroid and his story and journey is not really explored in detail.
The Soviets are not entirely Central Casting Russkies, but they are very definitely split into Bad Russians (the Politruks) and Good Russians (everyone else). The picture of a post-Gorbachev Soviet Union bears little relationship to what we know happened, or even to what ambitions Gorbachev had for his country; but that was still very much a speculative subject when the book was written.
This is certainly a Big Dumb Object novel, but there’s enough going on to keep the reader interested. This review is based on a re-reading that I did many years after I first read it; because the novel was spoiled for me on first reading by the spoiler in the blurb, I read the first half waiting to see how the reveal was done, and then rather rushed reading the second half which meant that I didn’t really get the rest of it. This time, re-reading at a different pace and with twenty-odd years’ more experience of sf, science and life generally, I got on much better with it. Not a book to be rushed.