Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Greg Bear
(1985, Orbit Books)

The Way, book 2

Investigating a strange asteroid that auto-inserts into Earth's orbit, an American team finds that it used to house humans, and the libraries hold details of a catastrophe that might be about to happen, while down the enigmatic Way, a future society makes political plans of its own to avoid extinction.


-- First reading (ebook)
May 7th to 24th, 2023


I had mixed feelings about this book. In one sense, it felt very archaic, like a true ‘80s novel (which it basically is), with the nuclear war and the national squabbling even as they tried to take the Stone for themselves. On the other hand, it was supposed to hold a sense of wonder at the majesty of everything, similar to Ringworld (which did it very boring) and Rendezvous with Rama (which I loved). The wonder was done well, though what little plot there was didn’t hold me, unfortunately. I didn’t care either way for Patricia or Lanier or the other characters, and I was annoyed by Mirsky, who I guess at least gave me some sort of reaction. The third part of the novel gave us a plausible future-world view, with personality partials and holograms and living computer viruses and all that other cool stuff. But it reminded me of the much cooler future world of Peter F. Hamilton in The Dreaming Void. And that’s the main problem, I think –I spent most of my time reading it either being uninterested (the national squabbles or the stupid decisions that led to war) or comparing it to other books, where it was done better (or worse). I found the Stone itself, and the Way, to be interesting, but the political bickering not so much, from Russian/American and even to Naderite/Geshel. I was hoping for a more interesting plot to accompany the wonder of the surroundings.

Spoiler review:

Almost from the beginning, I was hoping this novel wouldn’t be another Ringworld, especially given the super-boring plot of the prequel, Legacy. Olmy is back here, but doesn’t have a part until the last third of the book, which is an interesting choice. Fortunately, the characters were a lot more interesting than in Ringworld, and the situation didn’t call for traveling all over the Stone as if it was Gulliver’s Travels. Of course, that’s not saying much, because here the characters were window dressing.

Patricia seemed like she would be an interesting character, trying to figure out the impossible mathematical principles involved in a chamber that goes on forever. Even after the whole book, I don’t understand what it is or how somebody could intentionally try to create it or “connect” it to the asteroid. Unfortunately, after the wonder she expressed in seeing the interior of the Stone, she became as emotionally barren as the others who had been there for up to two years. She’s somewhat attracted to the head of the expedition, Lanier, as apparently all the women are, but he is shown to be emotionally barren as well, even when having sex.

There are three instances of sexual activity in this book, and they are ridiculously bereft of all emotion. Lanier’s prostitute, then Karen when he just needs to get a release, and finally with Patricia, when she needs a release. It was the most boring sexual encounters I’ve read, and should have just cut to the next scene.

The Americans got to the Stone first, and made a complete mess of things, even given the tensions with the Soviet Union. I interchanged USSR with Russians, as the author did often enough, so that particular error in future history didn’t bother me, except that it was so typical and unimaginative. The Americans have restricted access to the Stone to American allies, with a small team of Chinese and a smaller team of Russians, who have even lower access than anybody else. They’ve found historical documents outlining the end of the world before humanity rose again and made for the stars, creating the Stone out of an asteroid and creating the Way, which holds gates to other worlds.

But the Americans being paranoid that Russia will do something stupid with the information –like maybe avoid a war- don’t even hint at the books available in the Libraries, making the Russians suspicious, and due to that suspicion, they instigate the war that the future histories tell of. It’s made to sound like an impossible circle, but the traitor did the right thing in leaking the information –he just didn’t leak enough of it. If the Russians knew they could destroy the world, would they?

It seems so, because after the awe and science of the first third of the book, which was getting boring anyway, the second half increases tensions with the Russians because of lack of access to the Stone. The Americans smuggle anti-ship weapons to the Stone, while the Russians launch a sneak attack. Although well told, with an interesting strategy, this third of the book held little interest for me, and completely derailed the plot I thought could have been interesting if they’d continued with it –Patricia’s. But war is one way to spice things up.

At first, I was very much annoyed with the Russian Mirsky, but he grew on me after the war ground to a stalemate, with nuclear warheads dropped on most of Earth, surrounding it in the Death foretold by the library books (the author seems to like destroying the world, as he did this in Forge of God as well). I liked it when he turned from a blind leader into a free thinker, dismissing the political officers and their desire to make a Communist bloc in their part of the Stone. He goes to the Library, where he sits down in those really cool chairs to learn more languages and the history of the world that wasn’t ours, but we ended up following the alternate reality to oblivion anyway. And he comes out of it feeling like he just wants to get away from it all.

He doesn’t get that chance, though, as he is rounded up with all the other residents by a conspiracy among the people of the Way. It turns out that the Americans didn’t go far enough down the Corridor –they had to go more than a million miles before they would find Axis City; they hadn’t even gone close before the Russians attacked.

Patricia, being observed by an invisible Olmy since she arrived, is taken first, and learns to adapt to the futuristic society very quickly. She apparently has a presence of spirit that is required to reanimate the fractured personality of the Engineer, who created the Way, and they think he can help in the present crisis. For the Jarts are attacking, and will soon open a gate to the surface of a star, which will kill all humans. Instead, the Geshels have decided to accelerate Axis City to a third the speed of light, creating a shock wave that will destroy all gates along its path.

And Patricia is brought into the middle of this crisis. Lanier and three others follow Olmy’s ship and arrive at Axis City several days after Patricia. Where Patricia could be kept secret, the arrival of the others cannot, and everybody learns about the humans who invaded Thistledown, the city they found in the fourth chamber.

Here, the wonder of the earlier part of the book takes over again, as Patricia is visited by a Rogue personality from the Central Computer, and she sees alien beings, and Olmy and the presiding minister can create partial personalities with their implants. A partial personality can even continue working while Olmy is sleeping. There’s lots of cool stuff available, but most of it we witness in passing or as a part of life, which is something I love about this kind of storytelling. There’s no point in listing it all, but it was fun navigating the future world.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t as cool as other future societies I’ve read, like The Dreaming Void (and other Commonwealth stories), which are a lot more action-packed and maybe built upon these ideas. It could just be that the era in which this was written lacked a bit more imagining. Regardless, it was well-written, but the execution left me wanting something more from it.

In the end, while Patricia and Lanier are out visiting another planet, they have to race back because the Geshels have started a revolution and stolen a couple of parts of Axis City, which they take to Thistledown. People are evacuated, while Patricia searches for a gate only she can find. In the last millisecond, she opens the gate, as the fiery plasma from the Jart attack overwhelms everything, and Axis City accelerates to counter it with the shock wave.

Lanier and Olmy survive back into the Stone, while Axis City moves out into the unknown of the Way (where they will presumably meet the Presiding Minister, who found a gate to an intersection in the Way much farther down). Patricia, meanwhile, was searching for a way home, back to a version of Earth that didn’t go into nuclear holocaust. And she does, but unfortunately it’s one where the Egyptian Pharoahs still rule, not one where her loved ones live. Having grown into an old woman, she still searches for that elusive gate.

I guess that sets up the sequel. I hope it has all the wonder of this setting, plus a more interesting story to go along with it. I also hope the characters are a little more interesting, or at least show more emotion. This was an in-between book because I liked some of what was presented, but it came at the expense of other parts.


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