Sunday 31st August: No post last weekend, due to being on holiday in Egypt – very hot but very enjoyable. We rarely moved from the pools and, indeed, only left the hotel twice. I can recommend the Three Corners Kiroseiz resort in Sharm el Sheikh (don’t believe the bad reviews on TripAdvisor, I can counter every bad point made).
Being on standby this weekend meant that I couldn’t go out to see any live bands so it’s back to the secondary subject and some comments on the last few books I have finished. After completing Return To Mars, I decided to read the other two Ben Bova books that were currently in my “to read” pile…
Venus (Ben Bova, 2000) This is another of Bova’s Grand Tour novels, set a short time after Return to Mars and featuring one of the characters from that novel in a supporting role. The story sees Van Humphries take on the challenge of recovering his brother’s remains from the surface of Venus. Alex was killed two years earlier while attempting to explore the planet and Martin Humphries, his father, has offered a large financial reward to anybody who can return his remains. This reward also attracts Lars Fuchs, previously a business rival of the elder Humphries and it turns out that Fuchs, and Venus itself, are both harbouring secrets.
Another easy read, this novel is perhaps slightly less believable than the Mars or Moon sequences. Bova moves slightly away from the corporate exploration of the solar system as Van is part of a futuristic mixture of Bohemian and noveau riche, self-funding the construction of his own spaceship and paying for the crew. One thing that Bova does do well is to show that, while we are not currently contemplating human exploration of Venus, it is in fact no less dangerous than the exploration of near-Earth space. It may be hotter and covered with and atmosphere of corrosive gasses, but it can’t kill you any more dead than the cold vacuum of space. Venus is portrayed as a dangerous planet with just a different set of challenges for any potential explorers.
Brothers (Ben Bova, 1996) Next up was a novel from a bit earlier in Bova’s long career. Brothers, in some ways, reads more like a medical thriller than full blown science fiction novel. Helped by a train journey to Norwich and back, I finished this 500+ page novel in a little over a day, proving what an incredibly easy read it is.
In the present, Arthur Marshak is the subject of a “science court”, allowing fellow scientists, politicians and others to decide whether his work – a possible medical breakthrough which could lead to greatly elongated lives, if not immortality – can be moved to the stage of experimentation on humans. Entwined among the present day chapters is the story of how the work got to this stage, seen from multiple points of view, including Arthur, his brother Jessie, the women in their lives, Arthur’s team of scientists and various others.
I really enjoyed this novel, the characters are totally believable and the whole situation seemed, to me, to be as plausible as it needed to be. That is, I don’t think it would actually be possible, but it seemed possible enough for the purpose of the novel. Bova argues well on all sides of the discussion, making this a thought-provoking book. Well worth a read.
On a side note, it seems to me that Bova’s publishers need to employ some better proof-readers. I don’t think I have ever seen so many inconsistencies as I have done in the last three books I have read. At one point in Venus, the names of the ship being looked for and the one been used to look were changed over while, in Brothers, one character changed pronoun from she to he and back to she in the space of one paragraph, while another character apparently thought it strange to see his name on placards for the first time, two chapters after commenting on the same thing. Things like this don’t spoil a novel for me, but they do detract from the story slightly.
After that, the next three books were, to say the least, disappointing and somewhat hard-going.
First up was Dreaming Smoke (Tricia Sullivan, 1999). I’m not sure that I could do a plot summary justice but I’ll try. Human colonists on an almost uninhabitable planet are, with the help of their AI, trying to terraform it. They use Dreaming to help. Then things start to go wrong, revolutionaries start causing problems and Kalypso Deed needs to try to put things right. So, what is Dreaming? I don’t know. What did the revolutionaries want? Sorry, still don’t know. And what actually happened in the end? Not much of an idea there, either, I’m afraid. Cyberpunk is not my thing and this is advertised as cyberpunk coming out of the dark. I’m afraid that it left me in it.
Drowned World (J. G. Ballard, 1962) is set in London after solar flares have melted the polar ice caps, flooding much of the planet and, with the increased heat, sending plant and animal life into a sort of devolution. Most of a scientific team leave London at the beginning of the novel, but three people stay behind. Soon they are joined by pirates who aim to loot London of any treasures left.
The main theme of the novel isn’t one of action, but psychology, as Ballard explores how the regression of the planet and its flora affects the mind of the central character, in a way causing him to regress as well. Another of the SF Masterworks, I’m sure that this is an important novel in the history of science fiction, it just didn’t do anything for me.
Finally, The Starchild Trilogy (Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson, 1980) is a compendium version of The Reefs of Space (1964), Starchild (1965) and Rogue Star (1969), although in a different order to those publication dates. The books depict a future where Mankind is subject to a totalitarian rule, the Plan of Man, where all decisions are made by the Planner and the Planning machine. Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal linking them – there are no crossover characters and there didn’t appear, to me, to be an over-riding story. Of the three books, The Reefs of Space was the most interesting with the mystery surrounding its lead character keeping me engrossed. However, overall, this was a fairly turgid read, reminiscent of a lot of sixties future-of-mankind, SF. Again, for scholars of the history of science fiction, there is probably a lot to work with but, for a simple modern reader, this had little to keep me interested.