The Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear (1993): In this sequel to Bear’s excellent late-1980’s science-fiction disaster novel The Forge of God, Earth has been murdered by self-replicating machines created by a race known to the rest of galactic civilization only as the Killers, who have seeded the Milky Way with machines that seek out and destroy intelligent life wherever they find it.
The Benefactors, benevolent machines created by an alliance of interstellar civilizations, arrived in our solar system too late to fully defeat the machines of the Killers, though they did rescue tens of thousands of people from the dying Earth (along with a laundry list of species) and begin the process of renovating Mars and Venus into two new homes for humanity’s survivors.
Part of humanity’s bargain with the Benefactors involves the selection of a crew for a ‘Ship of the Law’ sent forth to find and destroy the home of the Killers if they still exist. Every race saved by the Benefactors sends such a ship forth, partially built from the materials of that species’ dead homeworld if the homeworld has been destroyed.
The sentient, benevolent machines of the Benefactors are cagey — in order to protect themselves, the races of the alliance don’t tell the races they’ve rescued who they are or where they live, at least not immediately. Any intelligent, space-faring race may become a Wolf species like the Killers. In space, the best defense is silence and misdirection. The Killers targetted Earth because of the radio and television signals that have been flooding into space for the last 100 years. Highly developed species maintain a low electromagnetic footprint as a matter of self defense.
Five years into their mission, the 80+ human teenagers of the Ship of the Law Dawn Treader come across a solar system that seems to be the home of the Killers. Hundreds of years have passed outside the ship as it moved at speeds close to light in its search (welcome to relativity — the universe of the novel doesn’t seem to allow for faster-than-light travel). Technologies that can wipe solar systems off the map are about to compete — and one will be found wanting.
Martin, the main narrator, is the son of one of The Forge of God‘s protagonists, and we see much of the search and the battles with the Killers through his eyes. This is hard, extrapolational science fiction, Bear’s specialty. Those laws of physics which aren’t yet known are extrapolated logically from some fairly arcane ideas of Bear’s about how things really work at the quantum level. The result is a mix of the probable (relativistic effects being the most ‘normative’ thing here from a scientific point-of-view) and the meticulously extrapolated (everything from quark matter to the instantaneous communications devices the crew calls ‘noaches’ for ‘no channel’).
And along with an examination of group dynamics comes one fascinating alien race — the Brothers, from another Ship of the Law that joins the Dawn Treader in its final assault, who are cooperative life-forms made up of smaller, potentially independent creatures that look like giant centipedes. Some time and attention is lavished on the culture of the peaceful Brothers, whose biological need for cooperation makes them less war-like and more thoughtful than the humans. They’re terrifically imagined aliens — their group-form nature has even affected their mathematics, which deals only in probabilities and not in integers.
In the end, though, it’s the space battles that form the twin nuclei of the novel’s narrative. Going back to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s space operas of the 1920’s and 1930’s, print science fiction has given us star wars that make Star Wars look like a fart in an elevator, and Anvil of Stars is no exception. But Bear takes care to evaluate the ethics of war — and indeed of genocide — through the contrasting viewpoints of his human and alien characters.
The narrative also works as a group bildungsroman for the various human characters, as all must wrestle with why and how to achieve justice against a race that may no longer remember why it did what it did — or, alternately, to survive the psychic trauma knowingly exacted by the still-thriving, still-malevolent Killers as they play hide-and-seek behind artificial worlds, alien races and entire civilizations. Thoughtful, insightful and thrilling. Highly recommended.