Fiction Reviews


Titan

(2006) Ben Bova, Hodder & Stoughton, 18.99, hrdbk, 502pp, ISBN 0-340-82396-8

 

The vast O'Neil space habitat, Goddard, that holds some ten thousand 'crew', is in orbit about Saturn. It is a Babylon V type structure. Aside from seeking commercial opportunities, it is there to send a very sophisticated probe down on to Titan's surface. All goes well until shortly after the probe lands when contact is lost. Meanwhile on the Goddard minor faults start occurring and should these continue, or worse become more serious, then the lives of all onboard could become threatened. If all this were not bad enough, many of those on the Goddard want change so as to have families as well as have concerns that their activities in the Saturn system may affect possible emerging life. An election is in the air...

Ben Bova has once more carved a hard SF space opera that will undoubtedly be a treat for his regular readers and stir 'high frontier' types who are into developing space-located industries. Titan itself is an example of recursive SF being, in essence, a re-working of Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (as opposed to the Clarke short story that inspired that film). We have an exploratory human crew (tens of thousands as opposed to two plus those hibernating) in orbit around a gas giant (Saturn and not Jupiter), looking forward to a possible encounter with alien life (primitive biologicals and not a super star-faring civilization), and a computer mind in the mix (an advanced probe and not the ship's AI).

That the novel is recursive is no bad thing. SF repeats itself in many ways. At the most fundamental level SF tropes are virtually (almost by definition) universal, and at the plot level there are many common plot settings such as post-apocalyptic to, well, space. Recursive SF itself is a more thorough recycling and there is so much common ground between Titan and 2001 that it cannot be ignored. Of course if all recursive SF were simply disguised recycling then clearly it would have little merit. However where it brings something new to the mix then there's added value. Here Bova brings us the ethical concerns of exploring pristine environments, which is something personally I do think is important. (George Bush's 14th January 2004 declaration of placing Man on Mars is particularly chilling for bioscientists, until the presence of life has been clearly ruled out through exploration by sterile mechanistic probes.)

Aside from the above, for the casual SF reader, I have to say I am a little hesitant in recommending Titan. The characterization and social dimensions are facile (nothing wrong with that if they do not get in the way of the story) and poorly portrayed at length (which means they do). Leaving the physics aside, as Ben Bova has a reputation for getting that right, population science does not evidently inform the plot's development. As a bioscientist with more than a passing interest in human ecology I just found the whole set up all rather unbelievable. Relatedly the premise for actually sending this ten-thousand strong mission to Jupiter in the first place just did not hang together. The Earth had been (and presumably still was) going through a greenhouse crisis (Florida was underwater) and the new space colonies on the Moon and in interplanetary regions are resource constrained and so, for example, need water. Yet it is considered cost-effective to send such a large number of people, expending the commensurate resources, on essentially an exploration and evaluation trip that could be far, far more resource-effectively undertaken by a smaller crew. In part (I presume) to explain this there is mention that many of those onboard are virtually exiles, but name a society that would spend so much on exiles? Maybe the answers lie in some of Bova's other recent books such as Jupiter, and Mercury? If so this is not clearly (or even obscurely) signalled. What is more I am told that the book is a direct sequel to Saturn.

Still, if space stories are your bag, and you are solely focussed on that, then Bova largely delivers. I found only one outright error in the physics. Power and energy were at one point confused. Referring to a laser: "Ten megajoules is equivalent to about five hundred watts." Here of all fiction genres, those that read space fiction are likely to have a school-level knowledge of physics and so be aware of this faux pas. But this is a one-off slapped wrist. And so it is the characterization as well as the social science and human ecology underpinning the plot that are weak, and weak to the point that it detracts from the novel's strengths. I cannot but help feel that in this 502 page novel there is a rather good, if not excellent, 200 page story desperately struggling to get out. This is a shame for Ben Bova has a fine pedigree of contribution to SF as a commissioning editor. Though I'm sure that this book will appeal to his regulars and medium-future space opera, not to mention would have stood shoulders above others of a similar ilk back in the 1970s, today there are authors turning out better space stories. Please, please, please Ben, recognise your weaknesses and ditch them. Then you'll be free to play to your not inconsiderable strengths. Far less is sometimes far more.

Jonathan Cowie


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