Ben Bova

J-Sun

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I read The Exiles Trilogy and Orion and maybe some other stuff when I was younger but lost track of him for a long time. Can't even remember what triggered it but I picked up a book or two of him not long ago and before I could even read them I went to a library book sale and there was a stack of his books and I took a (small) chance and picked them up. I've just read his 1992 novel Mars and, boy, was that the place to get reacquainted! This is the best book I've read this year - actually, the best since I re-read A Fall of Moondust (with which it shares some similarities) in April 2012 and one of the best half-dozen I've read in the past three years.

In short, this is a novel about the first expedition to Mars, crewed by an international team of scientists and astro/cosmo-nauts, led mostly by Russians and Americans. The main protagonist is an "unlikely hero" (who originally wasn't even in the final cut for the mission) of half-Navajo/half-Mayflower ancestry. Due to political and economic considerations, it's a very brief mission in which doing the right science for the right reasons is hard and a string of complications (resulting in a final life-or-death dilemma) makes it even harder. But the book makes a very compelling case for Mars, reminding the reader that there's a whole freakin' world next door that bears examination and that such a thing must be done, not just for itself, but for the psychic/spiritual drives of the human species.

I have only a few quibbles. There's a big deal initially made of race/nationality and of gender and I'm not sure how well it's actually handled but it sort of recedes in importance, either way. There's one glitch where a character suffers a leg injury in a "hardsuit" and I don't see how the leg could be damaged within it without the hardsuit also being damaged. There's also an issue but I can't specify with without massive spoilers:
there is an issue with vitamins where a bottle is spilled, giving the impression of multi-vitamins rather than a specific supplement. Then there is a problem with a specific part of the supplement. So it's fixed by giving them massive amounts of the supplement. I can only assume they have additional specific supplements, else you'd OD them on all the other supplements in a multi-vitamin
. And it's a very long book (549 paperback pages) with a relatively thin plot all things considered. And the story is told in more than one timeline such that, while what's going on and when is always clear, why it's exactly chopped up the way it is isn't always clear and there is some repetition between the parts, particularly with the descriptions - a strangely large number of people are beefy and chunky and thick and sometimes we're told this about a given character more than once. But this is all completely trivial.

Two comparisons are instructive: Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy and the recently serialized Dark Secret by Edward M. Lerner in Analog. KSR gives the impression of a student who's just learned a lot about Mars and shows it off in obvious and insufficiently digested form. Ben Bova gives the impression of a guy who knows a lot about science, Mars, industry, bureaucracy, mission planning, media, etc. It's all smooth and of a piece with the story. And both Lerner and Bova have some admirable and some less savory characters and pressure cooker situations and so on - Lerner's characters turn into cartoons of evil and idiocy and everything becomes extremely melodramatic. Bova always resists this and stays stoic and professional and even his morally worst characters are tolerable and have their moments so are "good characters" and even his best characters have their (minor) flaws. The situations always stay gripping without resorting to cheap sensationalism.

Actually, there's a third comparison - many people could serve, but I'll cite Alastair Reynolds' Pushing Ice as one of the most egregious. Pushing Ice dumps literally a hundred names or more on you in an incessant monsoon of non-characterization and the reader can eventually weed out that it's basically a story of two people with a few satellite characters - most of the names are completely irrelevant. In Mars, there are 25 people in the book's main mission, which is split in two - 12 on the surface and 13 in orbit - and a few people earthside who are important. We get to know at least four or five Mars characters very well, along with a couple Earth characters and we basically know everyone on the Martian surface well but I'm not sure we ever learn the names of everyone in orbit because they're backups, few of whom come into play. Every character we do know has space to breathe and it's clear who's important to our story.

So in terms of exposition of both character and science and in terms of tone, this really shines. And, also, naturally, in what it's about, how vivid Mars is and how tangible it feels, how interested you are in the plight of the scientists, how compelling it is to read, and so on. In one day I read something like two or three hundred pages of the middle of it which I haven't done in I don't know when.

Anyone read this or any other Bova they want to talk about? Or about Bova's prestigious stints as editor of Analog and Omni? This thread can be for all things Bova. :)
 

Rodders

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I read quite a lot of Ben Bova a few years ago (predominatly the Moon War and Grand Tour series), all of which i really enjoyed. I've found him to be a fairly engaging author.
 

Vertigo

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I have found him quite a varied author both in style and, sadly, in quality. He ranges from fun spoof with something like Cyberbooks, to pulp with the Orion books (started well but got progressively more pulpy IMO), to space opera with books like the Asteroid Wars and Grand Tour series, to serious hard SF with books like the Exiles Trilogy.

On the whole though I have enjoyed his work but I'm not in any great rush to read more. I'll probably pick up his books if I come across them in charity shops etc.
 

hitmouse

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I read Colony when I was 13 or 14 and quite enjoyed it, but never sought out any of his other stuff.

I collected OMNI for several years, so must have read his editorials, though that magazine had a lot more interesting stuff by other writers and artists.
 

Vertigo

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As I said NS, 'vaiable.' The Exiles trilogy is quite good - fairly hard SF - though I wasn't so keen on the last one.
 

williamjm

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I've read three Bova books, Mars, the imaginatively-titled sequel Return to Mars and Colony.

Mars was definitely my favourite of the three, as J-Sun says it doesn't have the most complex of plots but I thought it did a good job of depicting a seemingly plausible first mission to Mars. I thought Return to Mars felt like a bit of a retread that didn't add a huge amount to the story. I thought Colony was a poor thriller with weak characterisation, I wouldn't recommend it.
 

J-Sun

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Nice to see he has some readers here. It wouldn't surprise me if there was a lot of variation - he's written something like 70 books over 40-50 years, so it'd be pretty amazing if they were all winners or losers.

As far as Return to Mars, I especially agree with you, williamjm, on the "imaginatively-titled": calling it something like "Mars II" or something wouldn't be imaginative but also wouldn't look like you were trying to be. "Return to Mars" is just out-of-the-way enough to underscore its blandness.

I finished it yesterday and I also agree that it felt a bit like a retread. It does definitely add a little for me, which I can't get into without spoilers, but that's actually a shame - it could have so easily been worked into the first novel but isn't handled in such a way that it's enough to fill a second volume. But it's not so little that the sequel is completely pointless and could just be completely ignored.

The book falls into equal thirds of Part I, Part II, and Parts III and IV. For the first third, I was pretty disappointed that he tossed out almost all the characters of the first book and replaced them with fewer and inferior characters. The multiple settings/storylines were initially reduced to one and the others never gained the prominence the secondary settings/lines of the first book had. The same goes for the backstory snippets. Despite this, the second book was just as long (544 pages). And the sense of "humanity to Mars" had been replaced by a "rich guy sends employees to Mars" feeling and so on. So there was a heavy retread feeling on all the stuff that hadn't been changed and a sense that what had been changed was for the worse.

I actually got into Part II a little more for some reason - he split the settings/character groupings/storylines and just upped the physical stakes for some of the characters where, even if you don't care too much about them individually, it still helped tighten the interest just in terms of simple humanity.

But then he committed the cardinal sin he avoided so well in the first book: we slid into a pretty disappointing melodrama (I mean, it had been foreshadowed throughout but took center stage late). I also have a problem with the timing - the first book covered about 45 days. The first part of the second book covered the same and nothing really happened. The first 45-day mission was incredibly more productive. And then the plot line that resulted in the melodrama lasted for months (most of which was skipped over) and it just seemed very implausible that either the bad stuff didn't happen sooner or didn't finally come to light to be prevented before all that time.

Anyway - it wasn't awful and I got through it just fine and the "big scientific discovery" of the story was pretty poignant and thought-provoking and worthwhile but it wasn't all that good overall and a huge drop off from my nearly perfect enjoyment of the first one. There's actually a third volume but I don't think I'll be getting/reading it.
 

Bick

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I just finished "Mars", last night. I liked it a good deal. Its a smaller story than Robinson's "Red Mars", in the sense of plot (its quite long in pages), but I'm not sure its worse off for this, and in fact it gives it a nice distinction from Robinson's book(s). Bova's book comes across as very believable in the main, whereas the Mars trilogy by Robinson (which I do love) is much grander, and probably much less realistic. I agree with J-Sun that the leg injury is a bit odd, but the point this occurs is so tense, I didn't mind. Perhaps there is some flexibility in the hard suits at the joints? Or they can twist? Who knows. What I did like, was that although it took a while to get going (one or two too many flashbacks, perhaps), the tension for the last 100 pages or so was maintained very well. A recommender, for sure. I will seek out some more Grand Tour books. They are not all in print I think. I was hoping to read the Moon books, but they are not currently available, so I shall have to hunt second-hand sources. Or try "Jupiter", which is in print.

In response to J-Sun's other query he mentioned involving a major spoiler: I don't think it matters if you get too much of most vitamins. A lack is a problem, but mostly an excess is simply excreted without any harm done.
 

J-Sun

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Glad you liked it. :)

Regarding the spoiler issue, perhaps so - I think it can be dangerous but I think you're right that it's not in many circumstances.
 

Bick

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Regarding the spoiler issue...
Continued discussion of spoiler thing >
The main problem I have with the vitamin C deficiency part of the plot is that there is no possible way atmospheric oxygen could remove all the vitamin C in the tablets. By the nature of tablet packing and construction, only the very exterior of any tablet could become oxidised in such a way (much as only the outside of iron rusts), leaving the majority of the contents undamaged.
 

ralphkern

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It's been a long time since i've read any Bova, but have got through most of them up to the Asteroid Wars ones.

If you can get hold of them the Sam Gunn books are excellent, essentially a set of short stories that are implied to take place within the main Grand Tour sequence (as i recall there are a couple of Easter eggs that suggest so, but nothing firm).
 

Vince W

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The first Bova I read was The Dueling Machine. It's still one of my favourites.
 

J-Sun

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Continued discussion of spoiler thing >
The main problem I have with the vitamin C deficiency part of the plot is that there is no possible way atmospheric oxygen could remove all the vitamin C in the tablets. By the nature of tablet packing and construction, only the very exterior of any tablet could become oxidised in such a way (much as only the outside of iron rusts), leaving the majority of the contents undamaged.
Sorry for talking past everybody with all the spoiler tags here. :)

My understanding is that, even under normal exposure, the pills will become ineffective and these were exposed to pure oxygen. So more like how constantly spraying water on them would eventually dissolve them (working from the outside in) and dumping them in water would dissolve them quickly. Though this is only a (partly misleading) analogy and, depending on the permeability of the pill, the oxygen might go right through them. At the very least, it would have damaged them to the extent that people might not have been getting zero vitamin C, but would have been getting far less than needed so still developed the disease. I could be wrong and he was taking dramatic license, but I could/can accept it. -- Oh yeah - and as far as the packing, the ones he was dispensing had been spilled all over the place so weren't packed at all by that point. But I don't know how they're constructed
.
 

Bick

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So I'm now reading "Jupiter" in the Grand Tour series of books, and it's another cracker (at least so far). I love Bova's style and although I have read relatively little of his compared to say, Asimov, he's fast becoming a SF author of choice for me. I tried to dip into some books that are outside my usual sphere (urban fantasy) and they didn't press the right buttons for me. As I age I'm clearly moving away from fantasy as a genre and more and more look for hard SF for a literary hit. I think Bova may join my short list of 'comfort reading' authors, as one of my very favourites. It's handy that he's written so many.
 

J-Sun

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A thread necro made me think there had to be newer threads on Bova, maybe even with more comments. A search showed that there was and proved once again how random my memory can be. :) (I also turned up another one I hadn't found before.) Maybe if we can get all these and all the novel threads going, we can get a Bova forum.

Anyway, it occurs to me to more fully update my Bova readings. Since 2013, aside from The Best of Bova: Volume 1 (2016) mentioned in the last post, I've also read the novels:

Privateers (1985)

Not flawless, but very good: a zillionaire space industrialist is forced to become a sort of "good pirate" in a fairly sober, non-space opera-y way.

The Kinsman Saga (1987)

This one has a complicated history. First he wrote some stories. Then he wrote Millennium (1976) as a novel sequel to those stories. Next, he fixed the stories up into Kinsman (1979) and then finally combined and revised both into this book. Whatever the history, this tale of Star Wars (in the SDI sense) and the Air Force/astronaut title character was pretty darned good throughout and became ultimately sort of sublime. Highly recommended.

Peacekeepers (1988)

And then there's this, which he tanked. In another thread I came across, EricWard nails it: this is a fundamentally flawed, misconceived "novel" (actually, series of scenes and snippets). Parts of it are excellent (and the best part was published separately, which I'll discuss in a minute) but I would not recommend the novel.

Mostly, though, I've read stories/collections rather than novels. I read Forward in Time (1973), which was his first collection. I haven't directly read his next two, but they were an odd "how to write" guide which combines non-fiction with a handful of stories (Notes to a Science Fiction Writer (1975)) and one more "normal" collection, Maxwell's Demons (1978). Given that a couple of stories in them were fixed up into novels, these collections are superseded by a set released by Tor:

Escape Plus (1984)
The Astral Mirror (1985)
Prometheans (1986)
Battle Station (1987)
Future Crime (1990)

He, of course, has more recent collections, mostly by Tor, also, but the resorting of the 70s collections were basically done with the 1990 book. Like I say in the review to The Best of Bova, that set looks like it will be definitive but for the impatient or the more completist, I definitely recommend the whole set above.

The best are probably Prometheans and Escape Plus; the least is probably The Astral Mirror, but even it is still pretty good.

Prometheans is a sort of theme anthology about the people who advance the state of humanity and has stories coupled with non-fiction articles. Sam Gunn and Chet Kinsman make appearances. There's what Bova calls an excerpt from The Weathermakers (1967) which was published in the December '66 Analog. I believe him, because the love triangle feels a little raggedly excerpted but the story otherwise works as a great novella. And, while much of the non-fiction is good to very good, it includes "Galactic Geopolitics" which covers the Fermi question and ranges over cosmological concerns and was just wonderful, likely my favorite of all his articles in these collections.

Escape Plus is entirely fiction and largely, though not entirely, YA/juvenile and features what was published as an entire short juvenile novel, Escape! (1970). This is a remarkably liberal look at handling juvenile delinquency and, despite a dated moment or two, is a pretty good read. It also includes Bova's first professionally published SF story, "A Long Way Back" (sometimes the "A" is a "The").

Future Crime is another all-fiction theme anthology and, unfortunately, repeats some stuff even within the Tor set but it's a big collection so still leaves a lot. It reprints the YA book Escape! and adds another YA book, City of Darkness (1976), which is of the tough "youth gangs in a decaying city" subgenre. Some of the big-picture aspects don't entirely make sense to me but within the stories main setup, it's a compelling story. It also features "Brillo," a collaboration with Harlan Ellison with a rather un-Asimovian take on robots in the police force. And Sam and Chet make more appearances. It is interesting to me that, while Bova is usually pigeon-holed as a "conservative" author (or at least no lefty), crime and the advancement of the species and youth and Bova's favorite protagonists, Gunn and Kinsman are all at least partly connected in Bova's fiction. Promethean, indeed.

Battle Station is another mix of SF and NF and it's hard to say it's themed, exactly, but there is a core of tech/military/foreign policy to it that gives it a coherent feel. It includes "Foeman, Where Do You Flee," which became part of As on a Darkling Plain (1972). It has a couple of rough edges, but is a captivating alien archaeology tale. In talking about Peacekeepers, I said I'd discuss part of it "in a minute," referring to the title story of this collection, which is a long excerpt (separate publication of one of the free-standing sections) and has a fairly simple plot which lends itself well to the action-adventure/space-combat content and was really exciting and good.

Much of these Tor books, especially the non-fiction parts, were written in the 80s and it can be painful to read - not because of Bova but because of the times. He was not babbling pie in the sky optimism in most cases but was being soberly realistic, or so anyone would have thought at the time. The idea that we'd be paying the Russians for rides because we don't have much of a space program of our own would have been babbling sfnal dystopianism at that time (like Privateers). On the flipside, "Telefuture" is a remarkable mix of prescience and big misses as this 1985 article talks about what we know as "smart phones." It's not like everyone works from home in a paperless office or that AT&T made a killing in the market but the technical discussion is fascinating. But this is exactly the thing that drives me nuts. We were promised starships and transporters and communicators and all we get is the damned communicators. "Try flyin' to Mars with nothin' but a f***ing portable phone, see how far it gets you."

Anyway - like I say, The Astral Mirror is probably the least of them and has a "what has been read cannot be unread" story to avoid in "The Secret Life of Henry K." (about Henry Kissinger's sexual psychology) but makes up for it with very fun and/or funny stories like "Cement" and "Amorality Tale" as well as provocative articles on important topics like "Robot Welfare" and "The Future of Science: Prometheus, Apollo, Athena." (Side note: yet another book-related story is "The Perfect Warrior" (aka "The Dueling Machine") which was expanded into The Dueling Machine (1969).)

Basically, you've got your loads of great stories, loads of great articles, and loads of novel-related things, all of which combine to give you great reading and a good grasp of Bova's work from the 60s through the 80s in just a few volumes. (I actually can't say regarding the older novels but I feel like the story elements of them really cover the essence of them and will mostly be reading from the post-editorial era of Bova's career in the future - especially the Grand Tour tales.)
 
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