Titan, Ben Bova

Tor, 2006, 464 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30413-9

Ben Bova is an old man. That, in itself, is not a problem nor anything to be ashamed about. Old age will happen to all of us, and it’s truly bad karma to start pointing it out in other people.

But I think that it’s entirely reasonable to point our that the assumptions of a generation can put off another. Kids do it all the time, as their newfangled habits mystify their elders. So if I say that Titan is SF written by a grandparent for grandparents, it’s not an insolent remark as much as it’s a description, and maybe even a hint for the marketing department.

Ben Bova, of course, is one of the Science Fiction genre’s elder statesmen. He edited Analog before I was born, and his bibliography looks endless. If he hasn’t done everything in the field, he’s come close. But reading his fiction is invariably a throwback to the old-school Campbellian streak of SF. Engineer fiction, simply written for a generation fascinated by the Race to the Moon.

Much as I’d like to trumpet those values, there’s also something fatally dated about them. The stately Apollo program paradigm is a product of its time, and it doesn’t seem particularly relevant to a world where the iterative chaos of the Internet has imposed itself as a metaphor for the modern world.

This is relevant to Bova’s Titan insofar as this novel feels as if it had been written right after the Voyager 2 flyby of 1978. Aside from a few new scientific details that we didn’t know back then, Titan seems stuck in the seventies, and not even the hip seventies: the reactionary seventies as seen by the conservative nerds who still hadn’t come to grip with feminism.

Case in point: Titan takes place aboard a colony ship in orbit around Titan, a 10,000-people habitat more or less exiled from Earth. As the novel picks up (it’s part of a series, which may be a bit of an obstacle for readers coming in cold), the colony is thinking about loosening the rigid zero-population-growth rules that have (somehow) been imposed on the entire population. This becomes a major political issue in the elections taking place aboard the ship: As the politicians make their steely-eyed calculations, they simply assume that all the women will vote for repealing the reproductive ban, but all the men will take some convincing. Or, as Bova writes as dialogue for his heroine, “’I don’t see how we can expect the women of this community to give up having babies.’” [P.155] and then, later, to a mostly-female political rally audience, “’Women make up forty-seven percent of the habitat’s population. If we get all the women to sign the petition, we only need two thousand men to sign up.’ That silenced them. Holly could practically hear them thinking; Two thousand men. How are we going to get two thousand men to agree with us?” [P239-240] The novel’s trite answer to that question is the stuff of bad jokes.

That’s the point where it becomes obvious that Bova hasn’t paid any attention to the real world in the past few decades.

It’s certainly not the only such detail, though: In the aftermath of a major political debate, there’s this little gem:

…he walked back into the living room. Elsa was watching Holly Lane’s speech again.

“Are they rerunning it?” he asked.

“No, I recorded her speech.” [P.231]

This dialogue isn’t even relevant today, at a time when YouTube, news media and even candidate sites carry entire streaming videos of debates. The idea of a massive 2095-era colony ship being stuck with a broadcast mass media is dangerously ridiculous, because picking at it can unravels many of the novel’s assumptions, including the idea of a massive colony ship. Better to leave it alone.

But if we leave that alone, it means that we’ll have to avoid speaking about the female characters obsessed about weight and reproductive issues, or the dumb-as-rock AI paradox that’s been taken straight out of Star Trek episodes. So let’s be nice and say that Bova’s prose is clean and unobtrusive, that his fascination for scientific details will please hard-SF geeks and that he generally knows how to plot. Even if his characters are almost uniformly nice (even the stock fundamentalist villain), even if some AI-POV chapters are entirely superfluous and even if the whole thing isn’t much more than middle-of-the-road SF from a time capsule.

Still, would you believe that this thing has won a Campbell award?

Maybe there are more grandparents in the Campbell jury than I thought.

The Hunting Party (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) As a pretty sarcastic guy myself, I feel a strong kinship to films that keep pointing out the unconscious absurdity of the world out there. You would think that a sardonic based-on-reality comedy like The Hunting Party (in which a group of journalists goes hunting for a war criminal… and finds him) would appeal, and it does: at its best, writer/director Richard Shepard’s film pulls off a very entertaining mixture of smart-ass narration, dark humour and hard realpolitiks. The characters thrive in senseless situations, and the machine that they set in motion has a well-worn implacability that feels right. By the time the film ends by putting in words what every viewer has been working out for themselves, The Hunting Party feels like the find of cute little hidden film that rewards those who scour the shelves of their local videoclub. But it’s not a complete success, and it’s the very qualities that make the film work that also make it sputter in place. The tonal shifts of the picture are particularly annoying, especially when they don’t work: Having established early on that the film is going to be a comedy, the script never manages to instill any degree of suspense, and it just digs itself in a hole when it tries to do so. The tragic subplot involving the lead character’s history also sticks out as a mismatched heartfelt section in a generally cynical landscape. The parts of the film keep working against each other and the result often feels like missed opportunities to go even deeper in the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s not a complete failure, but it’s frustrating enough as a faint success.

The Brave One (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) Sure, go ahead, say the nicest things about Jodie Foster and how she delicately portrays the trauma that sudden violence can inflict on ordinary lives. When you’ll be done, I will still be laughing about the ridiculously contrived script that serves as an excuse for this film. Casual brutal violence, OK. But the odds of the same characters being involved in a convenience store robbery, in a subway mugging, in a violent pimp/prostitute business, in tracking criminals and hunting them down? This is Death Wish crossed with some of the most coincidence-laden plotting ever imagined. It makes it hard to take the film seriously, as either a serious drama or a crime thriller. At some point, the somber tone of “Foster-the-victim” snaps and leads to “oh, come on, what’s next?” I laughed uncontrollably, then waited impatiently for the film to end. Never mind the syrupy music and the slow fade-outs: This is even less respectable than Shoot’em Up which, at least, didn’t puff itself in importance when it knew it was trash.

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">3:10 To Yuma</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, September 2007) Oh, hey, it’s that time of the decade again, the brief season when “The western is back!” You keep telling yourself that, John Wayne wannabes. Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy 3:10 To Yuma on its own term, that of a historical drama/thriller that happens to be set in the far-west. The quality of the project starts with two solid lead actors (Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, who’s particularly good as a likable villain), but the script is really what elevates this film over similar recent romps such as American Outlaws: here, the setting becomes a backdrop to a reasonably complex tale of redemption, revenge, duty and honour. Big honking concepts, but they go down easily when wrapped in decent film-making, slick acting and a few thrilling sequences. It all wraps up decently, paying off what could otherwise have been a slightly overlong film. Pulling together character drama and gun-shot entertainment, 3:10 To Yuma is all you’d want in a western. Or any Hollywood film, really.

Seeker, Jack McDevitt

Ace, 2005, 360 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01329-5

All right, dear reader, take out your white gloves and put them on: it’s time to give SFWA a little golf clap.

Why? Well, in a two-year period that saw the publication of superior works of science-fiction such as Peter Watts’ Blindsight, Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Accelerando, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin or Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, SFWA has deemed that Jack McDevitt’s Seeker is the best novel of 2005-2006.

Bravo, SFWA. Well done. (Golf clap)

But then again, we already know that as an organization, SFWA’s hopeless at -hm- pretty much everything that doesn’t get shoved under the usual “Griefcom-Writer’sBeware-MedicalFund” litany. (As I write this, the organization is doing frantic damage control to minimize the PR disaster that was the indiscriminate “DMCA takedown” of texts on a file-sharing site.) (And as I rewrite this, weeks later, SFWA is still stuck in another entertaining damage-control exercise about presidential candidates. Dumb SFWA, duuumb.) But SFWA particularly sucks at giving out awards. The mental midgets that log-roll each others on the nomination ballot have recently picked such all-time classics as Catherine Asaro’s The Quantum Rose and Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage as somehow being “best novels” of some sort.

Memo to SFWA members: “Novel of the year” is not the same thing as “most average novel of the year”.

Without any particular expectation -and reading Jack McDevitt will do wonders to extinguish particular expectations regarding his work- Seeker is not a particularly bad novel. It’s not particularly good, but it’s still a cut above anything I can remember from McDevitt’s post-Engines of God period. Most of the typical McDevitt tropes are there, but they’re acknowledged and even weaved in the theme of the novel.

But calling it “best novel” is foolish, and doesn’t just reflect badly on the ones giving the awards.

But let me take a deep breath. I banish the Nebulas from my mind. Happy thoughts. Okay.

Since this review has already spent far too much time bashing the Nebulas, let’s just talk about Seeker itself. If you’re already familiar with McDevitt’s fiction, you already know what you’re going to get: An adventure tale of far-future archaeology, using stock characters and as few changes from today’s world than are required in order to tell the story. McDevitt’s brand of science-fiction is comfort food for those who grew up reading the mainstream branch of SF and just want to replicate the experience. He’s not interested in genuine speculation, and I find it telling that his far-future characters usually spend their time looking at events in their own history.

So Seeker becomes an above-average McDevitt novel in acknowledging and integrating this fascination into its thematic thread. As the protagonists track down an artifact from a supposedly-lost spaceship, they too get some time to wonder how and why their civilization has remained stagnant. The answer isn’t too comforting. Props be given to the man, McDevitt can be pretty dark in his ruminations: There’s a limit to the Golden-Age-SF comparisons we can make about his work.

But I suspect that the novel works best as a Science Fiction procedural adventure, in which a tiny clue comes to reveal yet another tiny clue, which eventually (through a series of risky adventures) unravels an entire mystery. There’s adventure for all: aliens and lost spaceships and despicable antagonists and a plucky narrator to tell it all. Once firmly launched, Seeker is a pleasant read, and McDevitt is an old pro at playing with the usual SF elements. The prose is clean, the characters usually stand out, and if the story could easily be tweaked to a contemporary Tomb-Raider-style thriller, few fans will be put off by the result.

On the other hand, readers can certainly be disappointed if they’re expecting more than an above-average McDevitt potboiler. There’s little that’s innovative, new, threatening or even exemplary about this novel. Of all the SF novels published in 2005-2006, Seeker doesn’t fit in my recommended Top-10 and I can’t find anything in it that would justify such a distinction. And that brings us back to the whole “Nebula Award” business. There are ways to rationalize it: If the Nebula has become “an award we give to our own members in order to thank them for services rendered to the organization”, then there’s little we can say about SFWA’s decision. But then they shouldn’t be surprised to find out that no one takes their little clubhouse award seriously. Serious readers will go hunting elsewhere for a reliable list of novels that represent the best that Science Fiction has to offer.

(Since you ask: After a few years in the wilderness, the Hugo Awards are once more relevant, but I think that the best awards in the business are consistently the Locus Awards: Their top-15 long-list, subdivided in SF and fantasy novels, is a reliable guide to what’s worth reading every year.)