BEN BOVA: THREE NOVELS BY…
by BEN BOVA
(Quartet - £1.25 – 280pp – ISBN 0-7088-8058-4)
(1979, republished as ‘The Kinsman Saga’
with sequel ‘Millennium’ 1987)
Not a book to be lightly dismissed. A book to be hurled aside with the greatest vehemence. Picked up that quote from the Sunday heavies and have been longing to use it ever since. ‘Kinsman’, at last, is a book worthy of such condemnation. The turgidity commences with the cover, and a ‘Science Fiction’ blurb doing Bova a disservice because the story inside is no more SF than the last James Bond movie. Bova follows in the long-defunct Campbellian tradition that one would expect from his ‘Analog’ connections, ignoring the fact that mere space technology is no longer – in itself, innovative. The Science Fiction content is nil, a projected lunar colony, after all, must now be considered merely a grandiose engineering project on par with, say, raising the ‘Titanic’ – or building the Humber Bridge. It is science fact or even, according to point of view, history.
Bova’s genealogy as Hugo-winning editor of ‘Analog’ and ‘Omni’ should not be allowed to muddy the issue, the novel should be marketed at the audience it deserves. Why inflict it on us? It might seem churlish to labour the point, except that when you removes the ‘novelty’ of ‘SF’ from ‘Kinsman’ there’s very little story left. Patrick Moore used to write science popularisations on ‘The Domes Of Mars’ (1956), a factoid scenario of Martian colonisation, and I recall a plethora of school library SF about the training of Space Cadets. ‘Kinsman’ can be slotted into such a category – albeit twenty years too late. You know the plot – eager young pilot trains as astronaut, first orbital hops, routine exclamations of wonder at infinite cosmos, walking on the moon. It all happened decades back if I recall right, I even stayed up late to watch it live on TV. The biog is fattened out with an Eighties formulaic component-listing of token black, token feminist, punctuations of expletives like ‘shit’, put-downs of the trendy wet-liberal American radical sub-culture, all topped off by the added attraction of a first space fuck!
A knowing vocabulary assembled like a Lego-bricks all-purpose edifice with nothing much to back it up. A sprawling vacuity that bores and bores for the obligatory blockbuster 280-pages. The central character – insofar as he has a character, is distastefully elitist. A solid citizen. His one discernible attribute being an exaggerated ‘outward urge’, itself a defensive escapism, an exteriorised introversion (?). Space as escape into self, a severance from social responsibility, a catatonic’s reaction. Space seen not as the ‘high frontier’, but as a place to hide. Did Bova intend these inescapable conclusions? Through all the monotonous pages of political wrangling, petty cocktail small-talk, and lobbying for the lunar base (still unconstructed at the novel’s close) we are forced to conclude that he did not.
Any such cerebral content must be purely incidental, in the same way that the political philosophy is as frighteningly two-dimensional. A naïve jingoistic xenophobia which sees US Air Force intervention in the Middle East as ‘the visible show of American determination to stabilize the area…’ with ‘a squadron of MiG-28’s symbolising the Soviet determination to counter the American efforts.’ Like the Americans ‘stabilised’ Allende’s Chile, or Sihanouk’s Cambodia? A novel for the New Conservatism. Does Bova really believe this idiot-speak? How come mindless stuff like this escapes into print when magnificent material like Barrington J Bayley’s ‘Star Winds’ still searches for a UK publisher? It doesn’t make sense. ‘Kinsman’ will probably be highly successful. Don’t waste your money on it…
‘RETURN TO MARS’
by BEN BOVA
(1999, sequel to ‘Mars’ 1992)
(New English Library, £6.99 ISBN 0-340-70796-8)
We need a traffic-control policy on Mars. Because ever since Arthur C Clarke was knee-high to one of those room-sized computers, the Red Planet has become over-congested with a tourist-influx of writers. And anyone remotely SF-literate is now more intimate with the terrain of Mars than they know... say, Norfolk. Edgar Rice Burroughs and HG Wells kicked it all off early last century, and through its 1950’s high-point of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, EC Tubb and ‘Dan Dare’, Mars-dust has acquired more fictional-footprints than just about any other supra-terrestrial location. Anticipating such familiarity Bova’s protagonists even joke about seeing Burroughs’ Green Four-Armed Tars Tarkas lurking behind Mars-rocks. And sure, it was only the downbeat Viking-lander findings that temporarily killed off such extravagant species of speculation.
‘The impact of reality limits our dreams’ concedes Bova. Yet even more recently there’s been Kim Stanley Robinson’s three-colour ‘Mars’ trilogy creating new Martians through terraforming (‘Red Mars’ 1992, ‘Green Mars’ 1993, ‘Blue Mars’ 1996). And now Ben Bova re-uses an already over-used title – Capt WE Johns is one of many to claim previous ownership of ‘Return To Mars’ (1955), for the central book of his on-going Martian trilogy. Mission Two comes six years after Mission One. It also constitutes Navaho native-American Jamie Waterman’s second trip. Only now Bova’s ‘Chacotay’-figure is head of a privatised eight-person expedition. But apart from the detailed topography… where’s the new stuff? Even the novel’s central idea – the interaction of Terran-Martian biospheres has already been heavily trailored on the tabloid news pages. Remember all those meteorite-bugs from Mars stories?
Because, yes, where Kim Stanley Robinson fudges the issue of indigenous alien life along the lines of if micro-organisms had existed, they’d most likely been stomped-on by incoming Earthian variants, Bova winds his SF-clock back to lichen in Tithonium Chasma, and – just possibly, more. Unfortunately, compelled to over-write by the blockbuster imperative, interminable pages pass in which nothing of real consequence occurs – a sand-storm, a saboteur, some bantering sexual coupling, until Jamie is allowed to investigate possible architectural structures he glimpsed back in book one. This doesn’t get to happen until page 393, where belatedly the pace picks up to speculate on related global extinctions and the like. While as a concession to cutting-edge modernity Bova’s international crew – the Russian Dezhurova, Japanese Mitsuo Fuchida, and a cellular biologist called Trudy who you just know is English through her tendency to utter ‘Crikey’ in moments of high excitement, are shadowed by 28-million Virtual Reality internet-voyeurs back on Earth who, at $10 a hit, are part-funding the trip.
Yet despite such hard-science digital add-ons and hard-wired peripherals there’s a deja-vu I’ve-been-through-this-Movie-before-feel to the entire novel. It seems strangely dated, like watching the ‘Apollo 13’ DVD while telling yourself no – this isn’t tacky old Sci-Fi, this really happened. Perhaps we need Government action to rationalise our severely over-populated fiction-congested Mars-scapes? Or then again, no. Perhaps not.
‘ESSENTIAL SF no.5’
(UK - July 2000)
by BEN BOVA
(2,000, New English Library,
£6.99 - ISBN 0-340-72847-7)
‘Nova’-Bova, his books boldly re-colonising the solar system, world-hopping where previous generations of SFantsists have already gone before, the only novel element is that his fictional imaginings now get rebooted by digital bursts of NASA probe-data and new planetary theory direct from astrophysics central. Hence the ‘bafflegab’ trickle-down factor. Bova’s is a ‘Venus In New Genes’, not the jungle-world of hazardous oceans thronged with Jurassic beasties of golden oldie-dom. No – it’s blowtorch hot, and nastier than nasty. A real Hades-world. But for Bova, it’s also a metaphor for the greenhouse effect devastating his near-future Earth, tick-tocking it inexorably towards Venus 2. Melting polar caps. Flooded London. LA tidal barriers. Lost Mediterranean beaches. Lethal storms. While global industrialists maximise profits by totalitarianising space in a future less ‘Starship Enterprise’, more extinction-event free enterprise, with neat side-swipes at the (Bill) Gates Foundation and (Steven) Spielberg-funded space exploration. A future where the warning voices of militant green activists get marginalised, demonised and drowned out as inconvenient ‘subversives’ who are merely impeding the supremacy of triumphalist capitalism.
But where Bova’s Mars novels centre on the purely technical problems of planetary colonisation, this added political edge provides tensions sufficient to up-gear his Venus venture by added dimensions. The action opens on Bova’s other recent fictional location, ‘Selene’ Moon City. Here he introduces Van Humphries, the low-esteem anaemic family runt of a domineering tycoon father. Soon he’s expeditioning to retrieve green-sympathising brother Alex, whose ship lies wrecked beneath the dense Venusian sulphur-clouds. But he’s driven there not only by his (supposed) father’s derision – but also by that resented ill-gotten financial muscle too. Once there, as on the Mars forays there’s some flirtation about grave-robbing early-Space Age artefacts, this time they detect the Venera-probe. And there’s some resurrection of the extraterrestrial life-form equation too, now it’s metal-munching aerobacteria and tentacular silicates. And if you wonder is it really reasonable to expect micro-organisms in a Venusian meteorological vision of Milton’s ‘glowing hell’? then hey – ‘absence of proof is not proof of absence’ he argues, as Van Humphries’ crew are rescued at the point of crack-up by asteroidal Rock-Rat Lars Fuchs, a brooding vintage Space Pirate-figure, who accomplishes the link-up with a ludicrous ease that eluded the logistically far-simpler salvation of those Russian sailors entombed aboard the stricken submarine Kursk some recent years earlier. For sure, Bova’s nova-‘Venus’ is less the stuff of visionary mind-expansion, more a kind of hard science thriller. But not a bad one at that.
(February 2004 – Australia)