The Sunborn is a deeply disappointing sequel to Gregory Benford's stupendous The Martian Race. Set a little over twenty years after that book's ending, it opens with a very good sequence on Mars that will win fans of the first book over in a tick. Julia Barth and her husband Victor, the two Consortium astronauts who elected to stay behind on the red planet at the end of Race, have, with the help of a generation of new explorers, built up the fledgling colony on Mars into an impressive, self-sustaining enterprise. Their benefactor John Axelrod, now rich beyond the dreams of avarice following the success of the mission he sponsored — life on Mars and everything! — still hasn't given up his old ways; there must always be new revenue streams, new ways to exploit space exploration for cash, cash, cash. Despite enjoying the beneficial results of what is being called the Mars Effect — unusual longevity and good health — Julia and Victor feel like they're burning out, though they can't really bring themselves to admit it. But after 20 years living in Mars' weaker gravity, going back to Earth would be dangerous.
Axelrod plays their cards for them. He reassigns — actually, "manages to convince" would be a better way to put it — Julia and Victor to a vessel bound for the cold, dark orb of Pluto, where an expedition led by Axelrod's own daughter Shanna has made what could be the most important discovery ever. Pluto is not merely inhabited, it's teeming with life, and the dominant species, the zand, are intelligent. Early contact with the zand has revealed another species called the Darksiders, who plunge in from the blackness of the Kuiper Belt and prey upon the zand. If things weren't crazy enough, when Shanna and crew catch a Darksider aboard their ship, it turns out to be...some kind of robot?
Hard SF is no stranger to far-out concepts, the farther-out the better. It isn't that there's anything at all innately unbelievable about Benford's alien life or his tentative explanations for it. These involve such tantalizing hints as bizarre activity on the part of the sun, and the incursion of interstellar plasma into the solar system, usually held at a safe distance by the "bow shock" of solar particles. Pluto is warming up, and Shanna is convinced none of the odd life upon it evolved there. It couldn't have. She believes Pluto has been transformed into a laboratory of sorts, a big biology experiment by massive powers unknown — but which seem to reside in the darkness beyond the outer solar system.
Given how potentially awe-inspiring such a concept is — could we be in for some true cosmic shock and awe, a la Lovecraft's Old Ones? — it's simply enough to make you hold your head in your hands and weep that Benford's handling of his aliens, from the Plutonian zand all the way to the Kuiper-dwelling Beings, is as banal as anything cooked up for Star Trek: TOS. See, the reason the Marsmats in The Martian Race worked as well as they did, even when Benford took them farther than convential wisdom would suggest was conventionally wise, was that we discovered them at the same pace as Julia and the other characters. We shared the human protagonists' sense of discovery with them, as they unraveled the mystery of Martian life bit by bit. So by the time the Marsmats were revelead in the fullness of their grandeur, we still could buy it, because Benford fed us each exciting reveal at a deliberate pace, never hitting us with too much too soon.
But "too much too soon" is the M.O. of The Sunborn all over. Not only do we meet the zand before Shanna and the other Earthlings do, but Benford gives them a narrative point of view; we see things through their eyes, hear them exchange dialogue, and, in doing this, Benford has to anthropomorphize them. Too much, it turns out. These aliens — floating blobs that inhabit Plutonian seas, for Chrissakes — need to be really alien, and they aren't. They've been humanized way too much for the sake of reader accessibility to be convincing.
This anthropomorphization harms the Beings' believability even more. These are truly alien aliens if SF has ever seen them, creatures of what Mr. Spock might call "pure energy" that inhabit the outermost reaches of the solar system and feed upon bursts of plasma emitted from the sun and clashing against the interstellar plasma coming inbound. But Benford, again, reveals them to us before he reveals them to his heroes. And they are simply too humanized to convince. They have names like Chill and Dusk and Forceful (but not, I can safely report, Dopey and Sleepy and Grumpy), and speak to one another almost exclusively in bad dialogue like <Let us go to the Cascade in a goodly spirit.> and <Such as we surely could not grow from tiny cold kernels.> I guess Benford assumes that by using < > marks instead of standard quotation marks, we'll think this corn will sound like the actual musings of a vast alien intelligence. He'd be wrong in that assumption.
There are scenes that call for true cosmic sense of wonder, and others that ought to scare the bejeebus out of us. But they all fall flat, mainly because I was never truly sold on Benford's aliens, but also because the surfeit of heavily technical dialogue (people reasonably well-versed in plasma physics might find large portions of the book easier to digest than I did) slowed the pace and made what should have been exciting passages humdrum. There are a number of times that Benford successfully channels that old Martian Race magic, by which he managed to tell solid hard SF while not becoming so techie that he alienated the broader readership. At those times the book hums along. But the further we get into the story, the more problematic in its execution it gets.
I like what Benford attempted with this story, I really do. The results of the attempt just didn't work for me. Benford hints in an afterword that he may essay another novel about Julia and Victor, set on Mars sometime during the intervening 20 years. As I have really warmed to those characters, I will be certain to read that one. If nothing else, it'll have its humanity in all the right places.