Tor, 2000, 382 pages, C$35.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-87216-X
Like the true professional that he is, Bova delivers another entirely ordinary novel with Venus, the result being good enough to make us think that this is entirely acceptable.
Bova, of course, is one of the Grand Old Men of hard Science Fiction. A scientist and engineer, his career in the genre dates back to the late sixties and his bibliography is, by now, as long as some people’s entire libraries. Looking through the titles, one finds a good number of solid works, but not one single classic. There’s a good reason why.
While Bova can occasionally be funny (Cyberbooks) or meddle in alternate history (Triumph), most of his output is nuts-and-bolts hard-SF with plenty of details and a fascination for the future history of the Solar System. His career is even long enough that his first future history (The “Kinsman” saga) was obsoleted by the end of the Cold War, requiring a new one loosely inaugurated by 1992’s Mars. This second series, the “Grand Tour,” is nothing less than an attempt to write a future history of the Solar System, one book and one astronomical feature at a time. As of late 2005, he’s up to fifteen books; more are promised.
Despite having been one of the first “Grand Tour” books written, Venus is, in internal chronology, supposed to be one of the last. It doesn’t matter much, of course: The story stands well alone and the background information is of the classical future variety: If you’re a faithful SF reader, it doesn’t take much effort to assume the standard “mine the asteroids, colonize Moon+Mars” stuff.
But Venus isn’t your usual kettle of cold fish. Easily one of the most inhospitable places in the Solar System, Venus is almost deliberately hostile to human life. Not only is it devoid of life-bearing features like most of the solar system, but it’s also hot enough to melt lead, with an acidic atmosphere that’s hungry for man-made material. The usual space-going technologies won’t be enough for whoever is bold enough to explore the second planet.
As the novel begins, Venus has already made one victim: Alex Humphries, brother of our protagonist Van and son of Martin, one of the solar system’s richest individual. Our protagonist isn’t the type of man heroes are made of: sickly, superficial and reluctant to face danger, Van is rapidly forced to made a bold gesture when his allowance is cut off and he’s manipulated in retrieving the remains of his long-lost brother. A simple objective with complicated prerequisites, including a vessel capable of diving deep inside Venus’ atmosphere. But he’s not alone in looking for the prize: His father’s worst enemy is also heading for Venus…
As a story, Venus is straight-up classical hard-SF. Define a problem, put the protagonist in danger, reduce the size of their survival box and provide plenty of technical details. There are twists and turns, but nothing terribly surprising. (Even the surprises are seen well in advance: One particular plot twist is shouted nearly a hundred pages before: only the dullest readers will fail to perceive the implications of a successful blood transfusion.)
If I’m being flippant, there’s good reason to: You can almost imagine a reader of fine literature grabbing ahold of Venus and singlebookedly confirming his or her worst predictions about genre SF: shoddy characters, by-the-number plotting, featureless prose and a dramatic arc designed to end on a happy note. Whoever is interested in state-of-the-art SF won’t find it here: This is comfort food for fans of engineering fiction, with nary an unsettling moment.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Despite the book’s flaws, I was surprised to feel swept along for the ride in the best tradition of classical SF. Venus won’t make a splash in the memory pool of genre fiction (five years after publication, it’s possible to be definitive about such a statement), but it’s adequate reading for fans of the sub-genre. We all need good mid-list books now and then, if only to keep the careful illusion that there is indeed a “genre” out there from which the best books can distinguish themselves. Venus is part of the solid whole of SF, exactly -indeed- the kind of work to confirm whatever prejudices one may have about Science Fiction.
If nothing else, it doesn’t take a long time to read.