Building Harlequin’s Moon by Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper (2005)
Read by Tom Weiner (2012) for Blackstone Audio (review copy)
Review by Sam: This is a book I was very interested in when it was originally published back in 2005, but it was another year before I finally picked it up. It quickly became one of my favorite science fiction novels, and remains one of my favorites of the 2000s. Combine Larry Niven’s geo-engineering and orbital mechanics with Cooper’s humanism and futurism, add a few thousand years and you get a book with interesting technical and social issues with well-rendered and well-voiced characters — and particularly strong female characters. When I saw that it was coming out in audio, I knew it was time for a re-read.
Escaping a medium future Earth with AI and nanotech run amok, a fleet of of three “sleeper ships” are bound for Ymir, where they plan to terraform with and then subsequently abandon their advanced technology to avoid a similar cultural fate. The lead ship, the John Glenn, suffers from a design flaw and though it can transmit a correction to its sister ships, it must divert to another system, expending nearly all of its remaining antimatter fuel to do so. The solution? Building a moon (Selene) around Harlequin, a gas giant in the system, and raising a work force destined to remain stranded as a “Moon born” caste once they have built a collider of sufficient power to replenish the John Glenn‘s fuel needs and send the ship on its way. Gabriel — a Council member, below the High Council but with privileges above even those of the “Earth born” majority of the ship’s crew, let alone the “Moon born” — is in charge of the terraforming project, and goes on to become a teacher in the nascent schools on Selene, where young Rachel is an ace student. There’s growing tensions between the “castes” as more information becomes known. There’s a growing dependence on the nominally well-shackled AI which helps run the John Glenn and calculate orbits and maneuvers. There’s more advanced tech — suspended animation and cell repair — and well-considered implications of these, such as suddenly (to the waker) aged classmates, a love interest now long-married with children, etc. Anyway, I don’t want to give much more away in the setup and plot than this, other than that I enjoyed it every bit as much revisiting it in audio as I did reading it the first time.
On to Weiner’s narration: He’s well-known as being from the “classic sf narrator” school of clear but mostly dry narration, but I felt he really showed some dynamic range on this book. He exhibited excellent voices for Rachel and key later women, particularly Treesa and Ma Lirren. Gabriel’s voice is much lower and more gravelly than expected but also solid. One of the striking differences in experiencing the book vs. experiencing the audiobook is that under Weiner’s narration, Astronaut (the main shipboard AI) is a much more complete character than I remember when looking back at first reading the book. Anyway, for fans of well-developed space sf, definitely recommended. A few production notes: the audiobook opens with no “Blackstone audio presents” or anything, just unexpectedly and suddenly barreling right into “Prologue…” But there are full ending credits, so at least at the end you might hear the title of the book, the names of its authors and the narrator you’ve been listening to.