Ben Bova

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.

Venus, Ben Bova

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.

Immortality, Dr. Ben Bova

Avon, 1998, 283 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-380-97518-1

Immortality has been a staple of Science-Fiction for as long as the genre has existed, from at least Greek mythology onward. Most of the time, Immortality was presented either as a goal for mad scientists (“With this ingredient, I shall live forever and enslave the world!”) or, perhaps more ominously, as a curse bestowed on an unlucky few.

Eventually, given SF’s own tendency to pervert its own assumptions, more balanced work have emerged. Increasingly realistic biomedical advances in the real world have helped to steer fiction away from the “mad immortals” cliches. The SF of the nineties has seen a renewed interest in the concept. Kim Stanley Robinson made it one of the keystones of his grandiose “Mars” trilogy, even though some will argue that it was a mean to develop the story with the same characters, not an end in itself. More recently, James L. Halperin vulgarized the subject in 1998’s quasi-mainstream novel The First Immortal.

Ben Bova’s Immortality, despite Bova’s solid reputation as a Science Fiction author, is a non-fiction work. It explores the avenues by which medicine may reverse aging, the consequences of such a scientific triumph and the desirability of immortality.

Doctor-Bova-the-scientist has meticulously distanced himself from Ben-Bova-the-SF-writer in Immortality. Indeed, his “Other books by Ben Bova” blurb lists only non-fiction works and even then it’s staggering to see that he has written more non-fiction books that most writers will write novels in their lifetimes. But Bova has carried to science writing the same limpidity of thought and writing that has earned him his legions of SF fans.

Immortality is an unusually accessible work about a subject that is unusually complex. It’s no coincidence if it take more than a hundred pages to get at immortality itself: Bova has to carry the reader through elementary chemistry and biology before really tackling immortality. Fortunately, it’s a much more pleasant read than the prospect of “a hundred pages of basic sciences” might imply. Side-bars, personal anecdotes, catchy headers and other techniques make Immortality a model of good scientific vulgarization. As might be expected, Bova’s research is meticulous. At the end of the book’s first part, we can’t be anything but convinced that immortality is just around the corner. The scientific evidence so far is overwhelming.

As stunning as is this conclusion, it’s the second part of the book that will fascinate. Here, Bova explores his previous assumption by looking at the social repercussions of Immortality. He reasonably intuits that not everyone will welcome this revolution with equal fervour. He also posits “what-if?” scenarios based on the costs of immortality treatments, availability and continued medical research on the subject. Alas, this part is over much too quickly; if the book has a weakness, it’s that this examination of social impacts could have been expanded. Bova makes simplistic assumptions that will give ammunition to overcritical readers.

But no matter. After finishing Immortality, it’s difficult to disagree with Bova’s assertion that death will eventually become, not obsolete, but far less implacable than today. It’s a breath of fresh air in a marketplace of end-of-the-world predictions.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Immortality is not the prediction of immortality -after all, it’s been a common fantasy for a while now-, but the fact that this prediction is detailed, quite reasonably, in a popular science book. Even long after first reading the last lines of the book, they will resonate as strongly as before:

The first immortals are already living among us. You might be one of them.

The Best of the Nebula, Ed. Ben Bova

Tor, 1989, 593 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 0-312-93175-1

A 600-pages book full of the “best Nebula-winning stories”.

To me, that sounds dreadful. I prefer Hugos to Nebulas: My liking for storytelling over literary prowess is well-known, and so is (despite a few exceptions) the preference of the SFWA for literary prowess over storytelling.

And yet, I’ve made a point to read all the Nebula-winning novels, and most of the Nebula-winning stories. The Best of the Nebula offered a chance to complete my collection.

The books is edited by Ben Bova, who not only serves us a lousy introduction, but also a few paternalistic introductions. As for the actual content, most of the stories are “classics”… this despite actual quality or entertainment value.

For instance, I’ve never been able to read McCafferey’s “Dragonrider” to the end, and this anthology only serves to up the number of tentative to five. Most of Zelazny, Tiptree, Delany, Leiber, Russ or LeGuin’s material doesn’t impress me, and this didn’t change with The Best of the Nebula either. On the other hand, I’m glad I finally read Martin’s “Sandkings”, Ellison’s “A Boy and his Dog”, Silverberg’s “Passengers” and Moorcock’s “Behold the Man”.

This anthology offers a fairly good overview of slightly higher-grade SF for the literate neophyte, but fans of the genre will want to take a look at the table of content before buying it.

I’ve played the game, and selected my favourite Nebulas since 1965. Here’s the list:


  • Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
  • Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1975)
  • Man Plus, Frederik Pohl (1976)
  • Gateway, Frederik Pohl (1977)
  • Startide Rising, David Brin (1983)
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)
  • Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (1985)
  • Moving Mars, Greg Bear (1994)
  • The Terminal Experiment, Robert J. Sawyer (1995)

Short Stories

  • “Repent Harlequin!, Said the Ticktockman”, Harlan Ellison (1965)
  • “Behold the Man”, Michael Moorcock (1967)
  • “The Screwfly Solution”, Alice Sheldon (1977)
  • “GiANTS”, Edward Bryant (1979)
  • “Tangents”, Greg Bear (1986)

Novelettes and Novellas

  • “A Meeting with Medusa”, Arthur C. Clarke (1972)
  • “The Bicentennial Man”, Isaac Asimov (1976)
  • “Sandkings”, George R. R. Martin (1979)
  • “The Ugly Chicken”, Howard Waldrop (1980)
  • “Blood Music”, Greg Bear (1983)
  • “The Night We Buried Road Dog”, Jack Cady (1993)

…and a few others, mostly in the Novel and Longer Short Stories category, but that’ll do for now. Of course, my list of favorite Hugo-winners is far, far more interesting…

Triumph, Ben Bova

Tor, 1993, 253 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52063-7

Are alternate-history tales true science-fiction?

Even though I admit this isn’t a sexier subject as “Fantasy and SF” or even “Verne vs Wells” or “Is media SF hopeless?”, it’s still a subject that hasn’t been solved to anyone’s satisfaction. Ben Bova’s Triumph is unlikely to shed any new light on the matter.

While SF often asks ‘What if?’ by projecting its conclusion in the future, alternate histories ask the same question, but by focusing on the other direction: The past. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Atom Bomb would have been developed by the Nazis first? What if Leonardo da Vinci had been named King of France? Alternate history tries to examine the possible pasts/presents that would have resulted by changes in our history.

And this is, revealing the punch early, where Bova’s Triumph falters. What if Churchill plotted to assassinate Stalin? What if -sorry for the spoiler- he succeeded?

Bova tantalizes, but delivers only partly. Since the novel restricts itself to the April 1945 time-frame, we never get a sense of Big Changes. In many ways, Bova’s novel is not alternate enough.

But it is remarkably historic. A lot of research has been poured in this work, and it shows. I especially liked the characterisation of Churchill, as unrealistic as it was. It seems that everyone in Bova’s novel is far more prophetic than they should reasonably be, an artefact of a 1993 novel about 1945 people. A lot of cameos from a lot of subsequently famous persons makes this an interesting, if increasingly unlikely read.

It’s moderately entertaining, especially for the WWII buff. Despite the ho-hum battle scenes the book moves quickly, an impression confirmed by the relatively low number of pages.

Like most Bova novels, this isn’t anything ground-breaking, nor especially spectacular. However, Bova delivers the merchandise in a professional, almost routine way. Worth the library loan if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.