The novel “The Ceres Solution” by Bob Shaw was published for the first time in 1981.
Denny Hargate suffers from a degenerative disease that causes progressive muscle weakness. Even as a young boy he’s forced to use crutches to walk. One day, he meets a woman of incredible beauty who disappears before his eyes. Twenty years later, he finds a job in an orbital habitat, an ideal place for him, but strange things start to happen such as the disappearance of the dwarf planet Ceres.
Gretana ty Iltha is part of an advanced civilization but doesn’t meet the standards of beauty of its women. Nevertheless, the idea of going to Earth to study the natives, compared to them primitive and ugly from the aesthetic point of view, is far from pleasant. She gets convinced to do it and infiltrate the Earthlings but soon her boring routine of study will be upset.
What if everything Earthlings believe concerning astrology and the like were just a faded memory of ancient knowledge much more sophisticated and rational? In “The Ceres Solution” Bob Shaw starts from that idea to build a sort of interstellar mystery that has profound implications for the future of humanity and not just the Earth’s.
In the distant past, the Earth was colonized by an advanced civilization but soon regressed to a primitive level. Many millennia later, the Earthlings still have a very short life and only vague mental perceptions, a mere echo of the great abilities of their cousins who live among the stars.
Because of these characteristics, the Earth has become the subject of an anthropological study and Gretana ty Iltha is a new agent who goes to live on a planet as a native. To do this, she must undergo some physical changes because the Earthlings and the other humans got differentiated a bit over the millennia.
Gretana becomes very ugly for the aesthetic canons of her civilization but even before she was considered ugly and the chief scientist promised her that at the end of her work she’ll be “fixed”. This is one of the elements that show how this interstellar civilization so advanced is pervaded by a form of hedonism.
Gretana’s aesthetic problem is ridiculous compared to those caused by the disease to Denny Hargate. The presence of a character with a disability is typical of Bob Shaw’s stories and in this case he suffers from a degenerative disease. For a time, Denny goes to work in an orbital microgravity where the environment allows him to live normally but then something happens that forces him to return to Earth.
The Earthlings are considered little more than guinea pigs but not for everyone because a small group intends to change things. They have no opportunity to do so by proposing it to their superiors because they wouldn’t get anything so they act underground. As a consequence, they’re considered criminals.
“The Ceres Solution” is a novel rather short even by Bob Shaw’s standards, still the author builds a complex story in which the subplots concerning Gretana and Denny have mostly a parallel development. The two main characters are on the edge of their respective societies for very different reasons and therefore have a cynical attitude, particularly Denny.
Because of the short length of the novel, Bob Shaw initially uses some clichés in introducing the protagonists. Denny has developed a rough character because of his illness. In his eyes Gretana is very beautiful but she’s considered ugly in her society, showing how beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
In the course of the novel, things get more complicated for the protagonists and both they and the other characters are developed quite well. In particular Gretana and Denny are forced in various ways to re-examine their lives and change their mind about many things after they realized that they’re different from what they thought.
“The Ceres Solution” is a novel with high pace that despite the limitations of the short length deals with the fundamental themes of human nature. For these reasons, I consider it among the best of Bob Shaw and recommend reading it.