“Proteus Unbound” by Charles Sheffield
Review © 1998 P. Douglas Reeder
Proteus Unbound is a hard SF mystery-adventure in the tradition of 50’s SF, but with a modern feel and modern science. It takes place in a solar system divided into two federations and an anarchic borderland. The Inner System extends to Pluto, the Outer System exists among the Oort Cloud of cometary material extending out a light year or two, and the Kernal Ring is a fictitious intermediate area rich in small rotating black holes – kernals – from which energy is extracted.
The Cloudlanders, the inhabitants of the Outer System, have been having trouble with their “forms-change” equipment, which allows one to change one’s body shape, and so recruit an expert from the Inner System, Behrooz Wolf. He is aided by several Cloudlanders: Leo Manx is a psychologist with an interest in Wolf’s mental problems, Aybee Smith is an arrogant young polymath, Sylvia Fernald, the chief of programming, and Cinnabar Baker, the head of Outer System security.
The problems soon broadens, and the characters must prevent war and save the solar system.
The mystery involves black holes, entropy and Black Ransome, the mysterious, half-legendary leader of a Kernal Ring group with poorly understood objectives.
The writing is adequate but uninspired; while one can identify with the characters enough to follow the book, they never really come alive. There are lots of hints as to how the book will turn out, and I was able to predict the ending in general terms. The characters make some progress toward understanding the mysteries, but most of them are foolishly captured by the villains, but then turn the tables by clever use of forms-change equipment, but this clever use is a fairly obvious, and the villain and indeed all society should have safeguards against this obvious tactic.
There are lots of potentially interesting elements in Sheffield’s future, but most of them are inadequately used, leaving his cultures uninteresting. One of the better bits involves people’s reactions to the unreliability of forms-change, which has superseded all other medical skill and technology. People turn to “neo-Asclepians” with their pills of dubious value. However, this episode is dismissed in a few paragraphs and never mentioned again, and the main characters continue to use forms-change equipment without any problems. Also, I wondered why no reporters showed up for a major disaster in an apparently open society of the not-too-distant future.
Devotees of hard SF and adventure (and perhaps those unfamiliar with black holes and entropy) should find this book at least an adequate read, but others will want to pass it by.
%T Proteus Unbound %A Charles Sheffield %I Del Ray/Ballantine %D copyright 1989 %O paperback $3.95 %P 262 pp %G ISBN 0-345-34434-0