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Near Future Hard Sci-Fi with Ben Bova
Book Review
© 2012 James LaFond
Traditionally hard sci-fi had two dominant subgenres: terrestrial and near space. No one, not even the most pie-in-the-sky futurist, thinks we are getting out of this solar system in the foreseeable future. Hence hard sci-fi stories by the more literary sci-fi writers tend to focus on social life on earth after significant technological change has wrought a very different society. More technologically minded writers, such as Bova—an actual scientist—tend to focus on exploration and the related technology and natural mysteries of near space. For this reason, much early science-fiction was not even considered literature by literary snobs.
The primary job of the hard sci-fi writer is to put the reader in the know about what it might be like to be out in space in a manmade object, or on another planet or moon of the solar system. Typically character development and social nuances—the meat of standard fiction—are given fourth place, far behind technology, natural wonder, and adventure. When this subgenre works best is with a small cast; a crew of astronauts for example, where the other three elements seem to pressurize and flesh out the characters as the story progresses. Rarely does a hard sci-fi story begin with an interesting character. The hope is that one develops in time to carry the reader through to the conclusion.
Ben Bova apparently lunches with NASA people, and has written so many titles they cannot fit on the one page provided for the author's list of other titles in the book before me. Of all of these many titles I have only read two: Welcome to Moon Base [essentially a sourcebook, and well done]; and Mars, a late 1990s, small-cast Mars exploration adventure that I must give the full five stars to. Bova is well along in a series called ‘The Grand Tour’, about the exploration and settlement of our solar system. He is ‘The Man’ in this subgenre. However, in the following book, he is forced into the ‘societal’ type of sci-fi specialized in by people like Sawyer, Wolfe and Sheldon.
Titan
A Tale of Cataclysmic Discovery
Ben Bova, 2006, Tor, NY, 464 pages
A Sci Fi Essential Book [Sci Fi book club edition]
This story unfolds 80 some years from now; primarily in the colony ship Goddard, orbiting Saturn. These 10,000 souls include exiles, giving it a limited gulag feel, and a team of scientists dedicated to exploring the outer solar system, beginning with Titan, the volcanically active moon of Saturn. My one fault with this story is the template-like nature of the colonists. The facility and its organization are very thoughtfully and intriguingly developed. The individual inhabitants however, are not characters that the reader can easily care about.
The story itself unfolds on multiple levels: technological; personal; societal and as an adventure. Once I got into the author’s character rotation scheme I skipped the domestic and political characters and read the astronaut, science and engineering characters. My two favorite characters, the two that propel the story to a climactic and memorable conclusion, were astronaut Manuel Gaeta and Titan Alpha, a trash-truck sized probe. Titan Alpha was a far more personable character than the Goddard habitat administrator or the chief scientist. The best scenes of the book involve Gaeta and Titan Alpha together.
This is a hope-filled tale that will hopefully, some day, be to some future Christopher Columbus what the Tales of Marco Polo were to him. What I would really like to read would be a collaboration—perhaps it has been done—between Bova and Sawyer, about a solar colony no longer ruled from Earth. What would that be like, living in a miles-long stovepipe in space for generations?
Montserrat Fontes: Dreams of the Centaur
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