As an all-devouring menace approaches the solar system, Earth’s hope for survival rests on a dangerous mission that one brave pilot must undertake.
In Levin’s (Rue, 2015, etc.) sci-fi novel, a “phase transition” in space is sweeping across the universe, moving faster than the speed of light and annihilating every particle in its path. Advanced extraterrestrial civilizations fall before the catastrophe, their technology useless to escape. Earth scientists calculate the devastation is 11 months away from their planet and brainstorm a long-shot solution; a warhead carrying a special heavy-element payload striking the disaster at just the right point of impact could stop it. But steering the delivery vehicle through intense radiation will make it a virtual suicide mission for any pilot. Despite the apocalyptic threat, humanity finds few volunteers among the astronaut elite. But in Houston, a controversial experimental program has set up a school where children with Down syndrome receive genetic treatments to restore impaired brain function. For patient Bobby Alderson, the cure means he rapidly develops a 196 IQ with incredibly accelerated math/science abilities—coupled with the innate goodness and eagerness to please supposedly typical of Down kids. Bobby has the right stuff in many ways, but will the miracle boy be sacrificed among the stars to save the universe? Fortunately—or not, depending on whether readers desire their “Flowers for Algernon” pathos served straight up or watered down—the author throws in some super-science twists to be merciful to saintly, personable Bobby when things take flight in the third act. Eventually, a strong religious angle comes into play, with disclosures of the phase transition’s true nature. While the message is not linked to the book of Revelation, evangelical-minded readers should approve. Levin offers a fast-paced narrative not weighed down by a slablike page count, despite galaxy-spanning scale and the gravitas of an ultimate-doom epic. But even with the overall brevity, there are asteroid fields of STEM-heavy passages (“Bright points blurred while others disappeared as gravitational lensing distorted cosmic optics. Phase Craft Two began to vibrate. Its antigravity engines hurtled the spaceship along a tangent Bobby had calculated to escape the star’s deadly radiation and avoid empyrean bodies within three light years”). The author wisely navigates these portions via crosscuts to the hand-wringing on Earth.
An engaging Armageddon space adventure with an angelic young hero; a religious course correction ultimately enters from the wings.