Camelot 30K is about humans encountering alien life for the first time.
In 2009, humanity discovers a signal from a planetoid way beyond the orbit of Neptune, about 35 astronomical units out in the Kuiper belt. It then takes another two decades to develop and deploy a catapult system capable to send human explorers to the planetoid they have named Ice. During the time of preparation, humans develop a method of translation between the two languages. When the first six explorers arrive on Ice, they find a world very different from Earth. First, the ambient temperature is 30° Kelvin, or about minus 240° Celsius. Forward is a physicist, and he uses a set of low-temperature chemistry to establish the unique life forms that could live in that environment. The aliens are called keracks. They are very small, just a few centimeters long, have 10 legs and are shrimp-like in appearance. They have a thorax and an abdomen, a single large eye globe on their heads, antennas for radio communications, and a large war claw for fighting.
Humans have a body temperature of 37°C. To keracks, who have a body temperature of about minus 200°C, humans are first huge (since the keracks are the size of shrimp) and second glowing hot, so hot, that there is no way of the two species actually having any physical contact without destruction to both organisms. To mitigate that, robotics experts have developed micro robots in the shape of keracks, which are controlled by humans from immersion pods. Think about the pods used by the humans in the movie Avatar. They brought two of those robots along, so working in shifts, the six human explorers keep controlling the robots from their base about 30 kilometers away from the kerack city they are exploring.
As the humans get to know the keracks better and better, they keep finding out more about their mysterious body chemistry, and their culture, until they finally realize the danger they are in.
This hard science fiction book by Robert Forward came out in 1993, before the Internet, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it projects a few decades into the future from its point of view, which, of course, for me reading it in 2016, is already in the past. 2009, when Camelot 30K starts, is some 15 years in Robert Forward’s future. Then most of the action plays around 2030 when humanity finally reaches Ice.
There are a few cute “predict the future technology twists” in this book. For instance, the humans bring along a “Lookman,” which is a tablet-like computer with a video screen that they can interact with by touching the screen. On the Lookman they have manuals, books, references, encyclopedia and the like. Basically Forward is describing the iPad which of course did not exist even in concept in 1993, but there was the Sony Walkman that we all know which came out in the late 1970s, a gadget Forward would have known and has obviously used to derive his concept for the Lookman.
The fascinating hard science fiction speculations by Robert Forward notwithstanding, I found Camelot 30K a very boring book. Nothing much happens beyond hard science speculation. If you are a physicist or chemist with an interest in science fiction, great. But for me, an average reader, there was not enough going on in the story to keep me satisfied. I also found it hokey that the kerack culture was oddly reminiscent of England in the age of the knights. The agrarian feudalism, the King Arthur-like battles, including jousting, not by horses and knights, but by kerack (shrimp) warriors on top of their heullers (large caterpillar-like creatures they domesticate and ride in battle and for transportation in general). The parallels between European culture 500 years ago and an alien culture based on chemistry at minus 200°C on a planetoid in the Kuiper belt seemed just too unlikely for me to just accept and move on.
Keracks are humans in shrimp bodies with human problems and human troubles to solve.
In contrast, I loved Robert Forward’s book Dragon’s Egg. I should read that again and review. But then, I think I no longer have the hardcopy after my latest purge of my books. Oh well.