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Entries in Ben Bova (4)


Power Failure by Ben Bova

Published by Tor Books on October 9, 2018

Power Failure represents a failure of the imagination. Ben Bova is an old-school cheerleader for exploration of the solar system. Reflecting that obsession, Bova’s recent novels have been about overcoming political barriers to manned missions to Mars. Apparently having flogged that horse enough, he has set his sights on a closer goal: overcoming political barriers to colonizing the moon.

One of Bova’s recent Mars books focused on NASA and crewed missions to Mars; the other had private enterprise taking the initiative. In Power Failure, Bova images a private-public cooperative model in which NASA and private businesses share the mission of crewed space exploration. I have to assume that Bova intends the book as a blueprint for how government and the private sector should work together to get crewed space exploration moving forward. His characters certainly make enough speeches outlining the familiar benefits (jobs, technology spinoff) of investing in a future beyond our planetary boundaries. I agree with most of what those characters say, but speeches rarely translate into compelling fiction.

The novel also touches on some of Bova’s favorite rants, including the failure of schools to concentrate on STEM subjects that are likely to build interest in the space program (as opposed to teaching subjects that might build interest in things that are of less consequence to Bova). Bova seems to be convinced that kids will be excited about STEM subjects if they get a chance to meet a real astronaut, further evidence that Bova is stuck in the past. He is clueless and condescending when it comes to the challenges facing the nation’s schools. Bova sounds like a cranky old man when he takes shots at teachers who fail to get kids interested in aerospace engineering.

The plot focuses on Republican Senator Franklin Tomlinson who, in his second senate term, decides to run for president as a tribute to his dead father. He needs a campaign issue that will elevate him above the status of dark horse. Bova, being Bova, remains convinced that voters will become enthused about a candidate who focuses not on healthcare or immigration or the economy but on the space program. Seriously?

Bova’s suggestion that Russians will jump at the chance to cooperate with America in exploring space is a standard means of shilling for the space program, but it doesn’t reflect political reality. Modest cooperative efforts (like the space station) have done little to lessen tensions between the two countries. I’m a firm supporter of the space program, but it isn’t the panacea for international peace that Bova imagines it to be.

Bova moves from science fiction to fantasy when he posits that running on a science-based issue is how Tomlinson will energize voters in a Republican primary. Bova acknowledges that a substantial number of Republican voters want to stop stem cell research, are hostile to the science that explains global warming and evolution, think sex education should avoid teaching contraception, and believe that mining American coal is the road to energy independence. Given that so many Republican voters are hostile to science, it’s shocking that Bova fails to explain how basing a political campaign on science will reach a base of voters who take pride in their ignorance.

The driving force behind Tomlinson’s moon plan is Jake Ross, who had a fling with the senator’s wife before the senator married her. Jake is the senator’s science advisor and is now married to Tami. Bova dangles the possibility of hanky-panky to try to enliven the plot, but it’s clear that the politics behind the moon mission are all he really cares about. To the extent that Bova believes a nonexistent sex scandal involving Tomlinson’s wife (who — horrors! — had dinner with a man while her husband was out of town) can ruin a Republican’s chance of being elected president, he apparently doesn’t keep up with the news. Ross ends up dealing with that scandal why? Aren’t scandals the responsibility of the chief of staff? Or the media relations staffer? Bova’s belief that scandals still exist, like his belief that science advisors play a critical role in political campaigns, is further evidence that he continues to write science fiction that might have been published in the 1950s.

The turmoil of a gay character is probably supposed to add currency to the plot, but it still feels like a 1950s attitude about the difficulties experienced by gay men. He also tosses in a conflict between Jake, who wants to stay in DC as the president’s science advisor if Tomlinson wins, and his wife, who wants to be a news anchor in Fresno. Those scenes are least might have been written in the 1970s —until Jake’s wife [spoiler alert] decides to be dutiful by sacrificing her career to remain at her husband’s side. It’s Ozzie and Harriet all over again.

As a seasoned writer, Bova knows he needs to add some dramatic tension to the plot. He does that a couple of times by placing characters in life-endangering situations. Those were the only parts of the novel that made me feel I wasn’t attending a lecture delivered by a stuffy pedant. The novel feels so dated and has  little to say that hasn't already been said.



Millennium by Ben Bova

First published in 1976; published digitally by Endeavour Press/Venture Press on June 19, 2016

The prolific Ben Bova wrote four novels featuring Chet Kinsman (and eventually combined two of them into a fifth novel). Millennium (1976) is the second of those, although the first, published in 1967, has little in common with the next three. The title has been released in digital format by Endeavour in the UK.

In Millennium, Kinsman is stationed on the moon, where Russians and Americans occupy separate but neighboring bases that are known collectively as Selene. Kinsman, in fact, is the military commander of the American base. His superiors think he is too cozy with the Russians and therefore unreliable, so they send Frank Colt to keep an eye on him.

Novels have to be read in the context of their time (it isn’t fair to judge a 1976 novel by 2016 standards) but even with that in mind, I didn’t buy the character of Frank Colt. He represents a stereotypical view of the Militant Black Man, exemplified by his inexplicable hostility to characters he calls “whitey.” Colt flip-flops in his allegiances throughout the novel, rather too easily and conveniently to make him a convincing character.

The novel’s paranoid view of Russia and a heated-up Cold War is more forgivable, given the political climate of the time, but readers in the current century should be aware that the story will seem dated. As you would expect, the technology is wrong (the USA and Russia have a moon base by 1999 but they are still using the kind of computer terminals that are now found in museums). The political reality at the end of the 20th century was also far removed from the future that Bova envisioned. But this is a work of fiction, and not making an accurate prediction of the future is not a reason to criticize the book (in retrospect, after all, a reader can make the inaccurate predictions unimportant by viewing this as an alternate history). Still, the sense of reading a dated novel is stronger here than it is when reading some other older works of sf.

On Earth, nasty Russians are shooting down America’s ABM “Star Wars” satellites faster that replacements can be launched and faster than America is shooting down Russia’s ABM satellites. The puzzled president -- Bova makes him a bit soft-headed, easily manipulated by his hawkish military advisers -- doesn’t understand that America is in an undeclared war. The military wants to take steps that would probably lead to actual war while assuring the president that war isn’t an inevitable outcome of blowing a manned Russian command center out of the sky. Yeah, right. Kinsman knows better.

Kinsman decides to lead a revolution that will turn Selene into an independent nation, but Heinlein already did that in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, so Bova had to tell a similar story in a different way. He does that with reasonable success. While Heinlein premised his revolution on his trademark libertarian perspective, Bova’s revolution is based both on utopianism (one world, make war no more) and practicality (if nations of the Earth destroy each other, who will be left to ship food to the moon?). Both are interesting, but Millennium still feels like a shadow of Heinlein’s novel. It is nevertheless a good story. It’s not Bova’s best, but it is better than his most recent work.



Rescue Mode by Ben Bova and Les Johnson

Published by Baen Books on June 3, 2014

Rescue Mode is the latest installment in Ben Bova's ongoing obsession with Mars. One of the characters even argues that Mars is proof of God's existence. Seriously? In Bova's previous novel, Mars, Inc., a mission to Mars was privately financed. Rescue Mode has NASA spearheading the mission with assistance from other countries. Bova dresses up the novel with one or two ideas that are trendy in current science fiction (3D printers make an appearance) but at its heart, Rescue Mode, like Mars Inc., is another tired novel that could have been written in the 1950s.

Mars Inc. focused on the preparation for a flight to Mars while Rescue Mode focuses on the flight itself. In both novels, things go wrong and adversity must be overcome. Other themes from Mars Inc. are reprised here: virtual reality journalism; debates about the benefits of a crewed space missions; the advantages (and political difficulties) of nuclear propulsion; the role of politics in crew selection; the power of science to bond Americans and Russians (Bova doesn't seem to have noticed that commerce has been doing that since the end of the Cold War); and the argument that "rockets make our country strong."

Still, the co-written Rescue Mode is different from Mars, Inc., but not necessarily better. The need to overcome adversity in Rescue Mode takes on a larger role (you might have guessed that from the novel's title) than it did in Mars Inc. and it gives the novel some exciting moments. Not half as many or half as exciting as Andy Weir's The Martian, a similar "overcoming adversity during a mission to Mars" novel that avoids Rescue Mode's stale political debates about the costs and benefits of crewed spaceflight and whether NASA's budget should be cut (a theme more deserving of editorials than modern sf novels). In fact, while everyone in Weir's book was concerned about getting an imperiled astronaut home safely, a fair number of characters in Rescue Mode are more concerned about the space program, which Bova imagines as the critical issue that will drive a presidential campaign. The evil senator who wants to cut NASA's budget was a staple of sf 50 years ago, but Bova seems incapable of moving past those caricatures. The cartoonish ferocity with which the senator opposes crewed space flight (as if that will be the most important political issue in 2035) is laughable.

The central character in Mars, Inc. at least had a personality. No character in Rescue Mode is remotely interesting. A relationship blossoms between two astronauts but it is the kind of "I care about you too much to jump into bed with you" relationship that was common in 1950s sf. If I thought I were going to die in a hobbled spacecraft on the way to Mars, I'd be having all the sex I could get, but maybe that's just me. In any event, the attempts to inject romance into the story produce more schmaltz than honest emotion. Other attempts at characterization are geared toward creating sympathy (one astronaut is a recent widower, another has cancer) but those attempts fail to endow the characters with actual personalities. Dialog among the astronauts often sounds like the ship is crewed by octogenarians.

To give Rescue Mode whatever credit it is due, its predictable plot is stronger than the predictable plot in Mars, Inc. The story moves quickly and the methods the astronauts devise to get themselves out of various predicaments are clever (although some, including "lets grow potatoes," echo Weir's novel). The political machinations in the novel's last quarter, however, are not believable, and they betray a lack of understanding of the president's ability to spend the federal budget in ways that Congress has not expressly authorized. Rescue Mode is not an awful novel, and in the 1950s it would have been regarded as a good novel, but its dated feeling and dull characters weaken its appeal.



Mars, Inc. by Ben Bova

Published by Baen Books on November 15, 2013

Mars, Inc. is a book about an aging man written by an aging man. It has the feel of 1950s science fiction. Sometimes that's a good thing. I like the "sense of wonder" that pervades a lot of 1950s sf and Bova captures a little of that here. But in style and content, Mars, Inc. seems like a novel written by a science fiction writer who is stuck in the past.

A billionaire named Art Thrasher persuades other billionaires to invest in a manned mission to Mars because ... it's the right thing to do? Bova's optimistic view of capitalism, and of the willingness of billionaires to spend billions on a project that is unlikely to return their investment, seems naïve, but that's the premise. Thrasher spends half his time complaining that politicians have devoted their lives to spending his wealth and the other half complaining that politicians aren't giving more funding to NASA. He doesn't have much insight into his own hypocrisy but most people don't, so in that sense Thrasher is a realistic character. The fact that he's an old horndog is the most interesting aspect of his personality. In most other respects, Thrasher is a pretty boring guy, despite Bova's effort to give him the feistiness of a Ross Perot.

Bova generally skips over the details of rocket design and manufacture, focusing instead (in a fairly simplistic way) on politics and finance. He does give us a tour of the spacecraft, a conventional vehicle that has been described by sf writers hundreds of times. Eventually the plot incorporates a mystery theme as Thrasher suspects the Mars project is being sabotaged and that someone is trying to take over his company. Bova invites the reader to select from the several suspects he puts on display. The method of detection that uncovers the culprit has more to do with wishful thinking than forensic science, and the reveal is less than surprising.

While sex gives Thrasher something to do in his free time (and something to think about the rest of the time), a subplot of romance that emerges in the novel's second half would be at home in an old, black-and-white television sitcom. It contributes to the story's dated feel. Apart from being stale, the story as a whole just isn't as interesting as science fiction should be.

Mars, Inc. certainly isn't an awful novel. It moves quickly and it's easy reading. Bova is a capable writer who knows how to keep readers turning the pages. The story lends itself to a sequel and I might even read it. This time out, however, Bova didn't write anything that hasn't been written before, and long ago.