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.

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