Thursday, October 11, 2007

And Then I Read: Bova and Gibson 

Trying to be more diligent in recent months about keeping up with important books, including books that have won awards and that I'd not previously read, I got around to Ben Bova's Titan, winner of this year's John W. Campbell Memorial Award, last week. Bova is a writer I sampled a few times back early in my reading career, about the time he was beginning to write 'big' adult novels -- Millennium, Colony -- as well as items like The Starcrossed, a fictional account of the development of the infamous Canadian TV series for which Harlan Ellison wrote the pilot, dutifully novelized by Edward Bryant under the original title Phoenix Without Ashes, and which Harlan subsequently disowned... but I'm drifting off-topic. Point is, Bova struck me as a competent, reliable SF writer, but not one I felt compelled to keep up with. So many books, so little time. One moves on. Anne McCaffrey was another writer I followed for a while in the same manner...

So now after 20 years or so I've read another Ben Bova novel, and I can't say I feel I've missed anything. My reaction to Titan is that it's bloated and contrived. It's about a cylindrical habitat in orbit of Saturn, full of refugees from oppressive religious societies back on Earth, which sends a probe down to Saturn's largest moon, Titan, to search for life there. The probe promptly malfunctions and refuses to upload its data to the habitat. Meanwhile, there are political intrigues aboard the habitat, as the current leader schemes to retain his power, and a rival candidate for his re-election takes up the habitat's Zero Population Growth policy as her campaign issue. By 'bloated' I mean that the narrative constantly repeats issues already established; this is a book you might easily set aside for 3 weeks, then pick up again, and the next chapter would recount everything already established, sometimes but not always from a different character's perspective. (It's the Platonic opposite of the precise narratives of writers like Gene Wolfe, who never repeat anything.) By 'contrived' I mean that the issues that drive the narrative are simplistic or hinge on false dilemmas -- e.g., if women start having babies in spite of the ZPG policy, scientific research aboard the habitat will be doomed! (Yes, that's what they say...)

I did track down a couple reviews (Adam Roberts' recent review for Strange Horizons nails it in excruiating detail), though I didn't see any of them note the odd resemblances -- I'm not sure they're intentional enough to call them allusions -- to 2001: A Space Odyssey. To wit: a robot (the probe on Titan) takes seemingly independent action in response to apparent conflict in its primary commands; parts aboard the ship seem to malfunction but when replaced check out perfectly; weird things happen when the moons of Saturn [Jupiter in the film version of 2001, but it was Saturn in the book] line up; and at the very end [slight spoiler here] of the book, something triggers a signal into deep space...

Nevertheless, if Bova's novel isn't literary or cutting edge by any means, it does strike me that it's a sort of 'meat and potatoes' science fiction that presumably attracts steady readers, book after book, by exploring basic SF themes in a way that doesn't require the reader's knowledge of sophisticated genre tropes to understand...

And my impression of recent winners of the Campbell Award... is that winners are being selected as much on the basis of their bona fides as writers of true blue hard science fiction, as on the qualities of any particular book; and by the same token, are as much career awards as they are awards to individual novels.

And then I read... William Gibson's Spook Country, a polar opposite to Bova's novel in many ways. Gibson is sophisticated and is cutting edge and is and precise -- and concise... The novel is a designer thriller; Gibson is a writer of surfaces and images, but also of convoluted and complex scenarios that don't play off formula notions of good guys and bad guys, and even though the entire book boils down to a mystery about a certain shipping container (those big box containers that ride ocean-going cargo ships and are then transferred onto railroad flat cars), it's the details and filigrees that make it fascinating and vibrant. That it's set in the present day -- well, 2006 -- makes it all the more compelling and realistic, if perhaps in a secret-history sort of way.

And that I happened to visit Vancouver just a few months ago, and drove around the city just enough to apprecite Gibson's descriptions of those docking gantries, and the bridges, and the island and the suspension bridge and the looming mountains to the north, made it an especially interesting read for me. (Not to mention the very specific sites early in the book along Sunset Boulevard, in my home town...)

Enough for now; I should be catching up on e-mail, and writing book listing descriptions...
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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