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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue.

Rocheworld. Robert L. Forward (1990)
Return to Rocheworld. Robert L. Forward and Julie Forward Fuller (1998)
Oceans Under the Ice. Robert L. Forward and Martha Dodson Forward (1993)
Marooned on Eden. Robert L. Forward and Martha Dodson Forward (1998)
Rescued from Paradise. Robert L. Forward and Julie Forward Fuller (1995)
All currently available as mass-market paperback and e-books (Baen), except Oceans Under the Ice (availability unknown)

It’s unusual for science fiction to avoid hypotheticals that we don’t have the science for. Forward doesn’t quite manage it in this series, but his handwave is in biology, not physics or chemistry – all of his non-biology is firmly within our scientific knowledge today, though not necessarily our engineering capability. Even where biology is handwaved, a lot of the chemistry behind it is known and accurate. On top of that, the story he’s telling in this series is a good one.

It should be noted that the books were not published in the order of their internal chronology. Nevertheless, that’s how I’ve listed them above, and that’s the order I’ll be looking at each book.


This, the first book in the series, was originally published in an abbreviated and unready edition under the title Flight of the Dragonfly. The current version represents a 50,000-word expansion of that original publication. The story is the same in both books, however.

Information received from an unmanned spacecraft sent to explore has revealed an interesting planetary system around Barnard’s Star: A gas giant larger than Jupiter (called Gargantua) with an extensive satellite system, and a twin corotating planet in perfect 3:1 orbital resonance with the gas giant. A manned follow-on mission (one-way; there are no provisions to return) is sent, with the remit to learn everything they can about the Barnard system and send it back to Earth.

Much of the book focuses on the journey itself. The ship is propelled by a large laser launcher imparting energy onto a light-sail, and it is the light pressure that accelerates the ship, Prometheus, toward Barnard – and, according to the plans, slow it down when it gets there. Naturally, politics on Earth becomes a factor, and the laser is almost inadequate to the job of stopping Prometheus, but a bit of serendipity allows it to complete its part of the job.

The first bit of problematical biology is part of the reason the Prometheus mission is possible; the drug ‘No-Die’ retards aging (and mental processes) so that the crew of Prometheus will age only 10 years over the 40 calendar years it will take to get from Earth to Barnard – and for most of it, they’ll be operating mentally as preliterate children.

On arrival (and after being purged of the effects of No-Die), the crew of Prometheus begins its exploration of the Barnard system, focusing initially on the twin planet. One of the two is a rocky desert, called by the crew “Roche”; the other is completely covered in a water-ammonia ocean (except for a few islands at the outer pole), and called “Eau”. In the process of surveying Eau, they discover that it has life – and what’s more, intelligent (though non-technological) life. Communication is established, and it is rapidly discovered that the aliens (named “Flouwen” by the humans) are all mathematical geniuses – an almost ideal place to be superior to humans, from the human point of view, as even if the Flouwen give humans the answers to hard mathematical problems, such as the three-body problem (or its extension, the n-body problem), it’s up to humanity to determine how to apply those answers to the real world, and to develop technology based on that information.

With the help of the Flouwen, the humans learn more about Rocheworld (the combined Roche-Eau subsystem), the chemistry of Eau, and the Flouwen themselves, and the aliens also save some humans from a ‘shipwreck’ that occurs near the Roche-Eau periapsis. Subsequently, some of the Flouwen decide that they want to join the crew of Prometheus in exploring the rest of the Barnard system, and after some debate, the humans agree and work up ways for the Flouwen to do so, such as equivalents of space suits and on-board life-support, plus adaptations so that the Flouwen can use human computers. Forward also inserts some hooks into the rest of the series, but they’re only hooks, and look like throwaway lines.

Not all of the book is from the viewpoint of the various humans; there are sections where the viewpoint switches to one of the Flouwen. In those sections, we gain some understanding of the Flouwen world-view and sensorium and how it differs in fundamental ways from those of humans.

Return to Rocheworld

Rocheworld established that at the Roche-Eau periapsis, a (comparatively) small amount (still amounting to millions of liters) of Eau’s ammonia-water ocean transfers across the gap to Roche. In this book, a closer exploration of Roche is the focus, and after a periapsis transfer, Prometheus, now with a few Flouwen among the crew, discover that Roche has life as well – and what’s more, it’s related to the life forms they’ve found on Eau, almost certainly through evolutionary antecedents being caught in periapsis transfers. Although the human commander of the Prometheus expedition cautions Prime-Directive-like non-interference, the Flouwen insist on making contact with their distant relatives, bringing them to Eau (which the “Gummies” – the Flouwen relatives – call “Everwet” and treat as a legend), and teaching them what they can. As in Rocheworld, we do occasionally get to see at least part of the story from the alien (Gummy, in this case) viewpoint.

Oceans Under the Ice

With this book, the crew of Prometheus begins exploring the moons of Gargantua, the superjovian of the Barnard system. One of them, named Zulu by Prometheus’ human crew, resembles Jupiter’s moon Europa in that it has a surface of mostly ice covering a liquid ocean. On closer inspection, it turns out that Zulu harbors life, and a decision is made to send down some of the Prometheus crew and the Flouwen to have a detailed look. They discover that not only have they found intelligent life (again), the ‘icerugs’ (human name for them) even have a culture and limited technology.

The ‘icerugs’ live on the icy surface of Zulu, but there is another intelligent species that lives in the oceans under the ice. Called ‘coelasharks’ by the humans, they’re found to be barely intelligent – but they’re also part of the ‘icerugs’ life-cycle, closely analogous to the way caterpillars are part of a butterfly’s life cycle.

It should be noted that although this book precedes Marooned on Eden in the internal chronology, it was released afterward.

Marooned on Eden

In what appears to be a ‘throwaway’ line in Rocheworld, Forward describes how ten members of the crew of Prometheus were lost at once, in a crash of the lander sent to explore Zuni, one of the moons of Gargantua. Nothing else about their fate is said in Rocheworld, Return to Rocheworld, or Oceans Under the Ice. Marooned on Eden and Rescued from Paradise tell the rest of the story of those lost crewmembers.

Zuni is an anomaly: the survey by remote probes suggests conditions that are Earth-like, possibly habitable. Certainly, there is life on the planet.

Ten of the crew of Prometheus, plus the three Flouwen, plan to land on Zuni to explore and report back with more detail than fly-by probes can provide. However, something goes wrong with the landing craft, and it crashes. As it sinks into deep water, they escape, leaving them marooned on a world that turns out to be habitable for unprotected humans. They manage to set up a community, and with some help from the Flouwen, recover small useful items from the sunken lander. They manage to re-establish communication with Prometheus, but there is no way for them to be rescued; the most that Prometheus can do is arrange for occasional “drops” of small-but-critical needs, such as vitamins that they can’t get from the environment.

In the process of arranging for their own survival, they discover intelligent life, tree-like in appearance but mobile (slowly, by human standards) and with a definite tribal social structure. The “Jolly Blue-Green Giants” (‘jollies’) and the human community end up cooperating, to mutual benefit, though there are some misunderstandings along the way.

Rescued from Paradise

Rescued from Paradise takes place twenty-five years after the events in the other stories. Although when it was conceived sixty-five years previously, the Prometheus mission was designed as a one-way mission, advances on Earth make it conceivable to send a second mission to bring home any surviving crew members, and the remains of those who have (inevitably) died.

The thriving community on Zuni challenges the rescue mission’s assumptions, and due to a quirk in the way the original mission and the rescue mission were structured, the rescue mission is co-opted into assisting the Prometheus survivors in re-establishing travel between Prometheus and the inhabited worlds in the Barnard system. Some of the Zuni colonists elect to return to Earth; most do not.

General Comments

While Forward has made sure that anything that was pure physics or chemistry was accurate, it’s hard to see any of the biology as reasonable. To additionally have one of the worlds be entirely suitable for humans to live on in a ‘natural’ state makes the ‘stretch’ even less reasonable.

This is not a story that can be ‘dropped in’ to a Traveller campaign; between the background and technology, there’s too much that’s too different, and there’s no real room for player interpretation.

Some of the social structure – and some of the biology, honestly – is interesting, in spite of some of the latter being difficult to accept. One could do far worse than taking it for inspiration in your own worldbuilding, but you do need to think about how it fits in with the rest of your world.

Having said that, the series is nevertheless a good read, and one that I come back to and reread every so often.