I have previously reviewed another of Bob Shaw's books, Night Walk (September 2007). In that review, I said the following: "Shaw is one of my favourite SF authors: from the 1960s until his death in the mid-1990s he wrote 26 novels plus a large number of short stories. Most of his novels were stand-alones, set in a wide variety of environments and with equally varied plots and themes. All were quite short by modern standards, fast-paced and intelligently written, and he was a great story-teller; his books are hard to put down."
The Palace of Eternity is another highly original work, with Shaw's trademark tight plotting and concise story-telling (it's only 170 pages). The hook is in the first sentence; who could resist reading on after this? "In spite of all of his efforts, Tavernor was unable to remain indoors when it was time for the sky to catch fire".
This is a difficult story to review without revealing the plot, as there is a dramatic development just over half-way through which changes the nature and direction of the story. So I'll divide this into two; the first part contains no spoilers, the second should be avoided by anyone who wants to read the book for themselves.
The story is set in the distant future, when humanity has spread over many star systems in FTL ships boosted up to tachyon drive speed by Bussard ramjets, called "butterfly ships" after the shape of the intense magnetic fields which spread for hundreds of miles around them. Only one other technological intelligent species has been discovered, the Syccans, who attacked on sight, ignored all attempts at communication, and for decades had been devoting all of their efforts to exterminating humanity, with growing success despite their failure to use butterfly ships. They are a vaguely humanoid but unpleasant-looking species.
In passing, the story makes an interesting point which echoes the conclusions of my review of Where is Everybody? (8 May 09): that while there have been countless advanced civilisations throughout the galaxy's history, each has a relatively short life-span of a few thousand years and, given the vast age of the galaxy, it is very rare for two to exist at the same time.
The story is set on the human-settled world of Mnemosyne, noted for its artistic invention and also for its own asteroid belt which prevents the butterfly ships from coming too close. This sleepy world is abruptly transformed when, for some inexplicable reason, humanity's war HQ is moved there. The hero of the story is Mack Tavernor, orphaned by a Syccan raid at the age of eight and carrying a massive burden of guilt which drove him to join the military and become a highly-decorated war hero before retiring to Mnemosyne. He is the traditional "competent man" of SF, and a loner who keeps others at a distance.
So far this seems like a traditional, not to say hackneyed, humanity v. the evil aliens action adventure tale, but the plot develops to be much wider than that, concerning the true nature of life in the universe and the future of humanity.
That's about as much as I can say without spoilers. If you want to read the book for yourself, stop reading NOW!
Mack Tavernor unwillingly becomes involved with some Mnemosyne residents who are resisting the military occupation, and is killed.
He regains consciousness as an egon, a self-sustaining energy pattern, in company with countless billions of others drifting in space around the planet. He discovers that egons are immortal beings who can reproduce, but in order to develop properly need to spend time as an integral part of a complex biological mind – a human or other intelligent being. New egons therefore link up with new human life and stay with it until death, when they are released to rejoin the other egons in space. They are the origin of human notions of the soul and spirit worlds, and the subconscious link between egons and humanity is also the source of human inspiration. He also discovers that humanity is unwittingly causing devastation because the egons can be destroyed – if they come within reach of the powerful electromagnetic fields of the butterfly ships. The space immediately around Mnemosyne is protected by its asteroid belt, so all of humanity's space-travelling egons have concentrated there, accounting for the artistic invention rife on the planet. The havoc wrought by the butterfly ships also accounts for the Syccan attacks, because they are in conscious contact with their egons.
Tavernor is selected by the "mother mass", the combined mind of the egons, to help resolve the problem of the butterfly ships by returning to the planet's surface to occupy a human body again; initially, with no knowledge of his egon origins. What follows brings more revelations as the new Tavernor becomes caught up in a Syccan invasion, and there is a final twist in the tale concerning the future evolution of humanity.
As with most SF of this era, the brevity of the book precludes much in the way of characterisation, but the story is well worth reading for the compelling action and, above all, the great ideas.