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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Reading List: Mercury

Bova, Ben. Mercury. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-34314-2.
I hadn't read anything by Ben Bova in years—certainly not since 1990. I always used to think of him as a journeyman science fiction writer, cranking out enjoyable stories mostly toward the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, but not a grand master of the calibre of, say, Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven. His stint as editor of Analog was admirable, proving himself a worthy successor to John W. Campbell, who developed the authors of the golden age of science fiction. Bova is also a prolific essayist on science, writing, and other topics, and his January 1965 Analog article “It's Done with Mirrors” with William F. Dawson may have been one of the earliest proposals of a multiply-connected small universe cosmological model.

I don't read a lot of fiction these days, and tend to lose track of authors, so when I came across this book in an airport departure lounge and noticed it was published in 2005, my first reaction was, “Gosh, is he still writing?” (Bova was born in 1932, and his first novel was published in 1959.) The U.K. paperback edition was featured in a “buy one, get one free” bin, so how could I resist?

I ought to strengthen my resistance. This novel is so execrably bad that several times in the process of reading it I was tempted to rip it to bits and burn them to ensure nobody else would have to suffer the experience. There is nothing whatsoever redeeming about this book. The plot is a conventional love triangle/revenge tale. The only thing that makes it science fiction at all is that it's set in the future and involves bases on Mercury, space elevators, and asteroid mining, but these are just backdrops for a story which could take place anywhere. Notwithstanding the title, which places it within the author's “Grand Tour” series, only about half of the story takes place on Mercury, whose particulars play only a small part.

Did I mention the writing? No, I guess I was trying to forget it. Each character, even throw-away figures who appear only in a single chapter, is introduced by a little sketch which reads like something produced by filling out a form. For example,

Jacqueline Wexler was such an administrator. Gracious and charming in public, accommodating and willing to compromise at meetings, she nevertheless had the steel-hard will and sharp intellect to drive the ICU's ramshackle collection of egos toward goals that she herself selected. Widely known as ‘Attila the Honey,’ Wexler was all sweetness and smiles on the outside, and ruthless determination within.
After spending a third of page 70 on this paragraph, which makes my teeth ache just to re-read, the formidable Ms. Wexler walks off stage before the end of p. 71, never to re-appear. But fear not (or fear), there are many, many more such paragraphs in subsequent pages.

An Earth-based space elevator, a science fiction staple, is central to the plot, and here Bova bungles the elementary science of such a structure in a laugh-out-loud chapter in which the three principal characters ride the elevator to a platform located at the low Earth orbit altitude of 500 kilometres. Upon arrival there, they find themselves weightless, while in reality the force of gravity would be imperceptibly less than on the surface of the Earth! Objects in orbit are weightless because their horizontal velocity cancels Earth's gravity, but a station at 500 kilometres is travelling only at the speed of the Earth's rotation, which is less than 1/16 of orbital velocity. The only place on a space elevator where weightlessness would be experienced is the portion where orbital velocity equals Earth's rotation rate, and that is at the anchor point at geosynchronous altitude. This is not a small detail; it is central to the physics, engineering, and economics of space elevators, and it figured prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise which is alluded to here on p. 140.

Nor does Bova restrain himself from what is becoming a science fiction cliché of the first magnitude: “nano-magic”. This is my term for using the “nano” prefix the way bad fantasy authors use “magic”. For example, Lord Hacksalot draws his sword and cuts down a mighty oak tree with a single blow, smashing the wall of the evil prince's castle. The editor says, “Look, you can't cut down an oak tree with a single swing of a sword.” Author: “But it's a magic sword.” On p. 258 the principal character is traversing a tether between two parts of a ship in the asteroid belt which, for some reason, the author believes is filled with deadly radiation. “With nothing protecting him except the flimsy…suit, Bracknell felt like a turkey wrapped in a plastic bag inside a microwave oven. He knew that high-energy radiation was sleeting down on him from the pale, distant Sun and still-more-distant stars. He hoped that suit's radiation protection was as good as the manufacturer claimed.” Imaginary editor (who clearly never read this manuscript): “But the only thing which can shield you from heavy primary cosmic rays is mass, and lots of it. No ‘flimsy suit’ however it's made, can protect you against iron nuclei incoming near the speed of light.” Author: “But it's a nano suit!”

Not only is the science wrong, the fiction is equally lame. Characters simply don't behave as people do in the real world, nor are events and their consequences plausible. We are expected to believe that the causes of and blame for a technological catastrophe which killed millions would be left to be decided by a criminal trial of a single individual in Ecuador without any independent investigation. Or that a conspiracy to cause said disaster involving a Japanese mega-corporation, two mass religious movements, rogue nanotechnologists, and numerous others could be organised, executed, and subsequently kept secret for a decade. The dénouement hinges on a coincidence so fantastically improbable that the plausibility of the plot would be improved were the direct intervention of God Almighty posited instead.

Whatever became of Ben Bova, whose science was scientific and whose fiction was fun to read? It would be uncharitable to attribute this waste of ink and paper to age, as many science fictioneers with far more years on the clock have penned genuine classics. But look at this! Researching the author's biography, I discovered that in 1996, at the age of 64, he received a doctorate in education from California Coast University, a “distance learning” institution. Now, remember back when you were in engineering school struggling with thermogoddamics and fluid mechanics how you regarded the student body of the Ed school? Well, I always assumed it was a selection effect—those who can do, and those who can't…anyway, it never occurred to me that somewhere in that dark, lowering building they had a nano brain mushifier which turned the earnest students who wished to dedicate their careers to educating the next generation into the cognitively challenged classes they graduated. I used to look forward to reading anything by Ben Bova; I shall, however, forgo further works by the present Doctor of Education.

Posted at December 10, 2006 23:35