Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward


Dragon’s Egg Book Review

Within the realm of science fiction, there’s a sub-genre known as hard sci-fi, which basically puts a lot more emphasis on the science in the stories being told. To some extent, you can expect this emphasis to be at the expense of other elements in the writing. Things like relationships, character building, and for a lot of people, relatability, though that’s not always the case. You can have interesting relationships between people as they grapple with whatever complicated idea is being explored. And indeed, any hard sci-fi author worth their salt will know you have to give the reader something other than mathematical equations to latch onto. Still, the question remains, for the vast majority of people, in some cases can hard sci-fi too be hard?

Dragon’s Egg by Robert L. Forward is an interesting book to reference in this regard. The basic premise at the heart of the story is that an advanced alien intelligence could evolve on the surface of a neutron star. The idea for it was partially inspired by a theory proposed by the famed astronomer and astrophysicist, Frank Drake, perhaps more widely known for the Drake Equation, a probabilistic argument used to estimate the amount of communicable alien civilisations in our galaxy. Now, for some, all of this would be the selling point for the book. But for others, they might have checked out the second they wondered what the heck is a neutron star? In my case, I was probably somewhere in between the two camps, in that I didn’t know what exactly a neutron star was or how life might possibly survive on one, but looked forward to finding out. Nevertheless, I was confident that there’d be an actual story to get me through some of the more complicated sections of the book and I wasn’t disappointed. 

One way I could sum up Dragon’s Egg for somebody who might baulk at the idea of giving their time over to such an odd-sounding concept is that Forward actually puts a lot of effort into charting the sociological growth of the civilisation on the star in question, so you actually begin to understand the science behind it all as they do. By that I mean, when we first meet the aliens, they’re the equivalent of what we would think of as cavemen. We get to see these caveman experience the epiphany of mathematics when they realise they can actually equate how much food supplies will be necessary in order for them to undertake a long journey. Later, we see them discover the laws of gravity, as Newton on our world is said to have had when an apple fell on his head. Of course, we soon realise the laws of gravity on their neutron star are completely different than on our planet, so as they chart the nature of them, we learn about the physical rules of their world at the same time they do.

Moreover, as the civilisation advances, the relationships between the alien creatures become more complicated too, meaning that along with the institutions of church and government that evolve, so too does the political intrigue as some characters work toward contacting humanity and others simply try to consolidate their power. Moreover, it’s often said that science fiction is less about the future and more about our own time. So while I don’t think it was Forward’s intention to put social commentary at the forefront of the novel, I did find myself having a profound little moment when I compared the alien civilisation to our own.

For example, children on their world are raised by the elderly of their clans. The parents involved just lay the eggs in a communal hatchery and don’t feel any compulsion to nurture them until they too reach old age and finish out their lives by caring for the infants. As you can imagine, it brought to mind what a lousy position a lot of elderly people here on Earth end up in. You know, when you have a kid, you basically spend a large chunk of your life teaching it how to look after itself and helping it to build an appropriately robust ego so that it can survive in a world where everybody is only looking out for number one. Then when you get old you have to rely on your own retirement funds if you want any quality of life, or, as is often the case, you have to depend on these children who you raised to just look out for themselves and end up getting crammed into a nursing home. That’s obviously a pretty extreme example, but I did find myself admiring the alien civilisations approach in that their children are seen to respect the elderly and the elderly find a continual purpose in how they become the primary caretakers for the young. That is all way off topic though.

So, back to the question at hand; Is Dragon’s Egg a case where the hard sci-fi aspects of it are too hard for the average reader? Well, to be honest, I think that depends on your tolerance for being confused. Having read the thing, I still don’t fully understand some elements of the science, for instance, why exactly the alien creatures need to travel along certain magnetic poles. I gather it has something to do with the extreme gravitational pulls from the neutron star as well as the fact that they exist on an almost microscopic level. But you’d be asking the wrong guy if you wanted the whole thing explained in any detail. Luckily, it’s not as if there’s an exam at the end of the book. I didn’t expect myself to get every equation that went into the science, which allowed me to enjoy the few revelatory moments when I did. And you know, I really grew to love some of the characters Forward created. I found he had a knack for both endearing me to these alien creature as well as for expanding my mind with plenty of intellectual stimulation.

In the end, I’d even go as far to say it was as inspirational as some of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen over the years. If you’ve never tried any hard sci-fi before, this is certainly a place where you could start. Or, if you’re looking for something more accessible, then check out my video on Sci-fi Books for Beginners, which has a little bit of everything for all you prospective sci-fi readers out there.


Simon Fay

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