Aug 2 2013 2:00pm

Strange New World: New Earth by Ben Bova

Ben Bova New Earth With climate change taking its toll on the icecaps and oceans, flooding across the globe has drowned numerous cities, killed millions, and changed the face of the Earth. But mankind persists nonetheless. One desperate gamble for survival: a manned space mission to the planet Sirius C, a miraculously, impossibly, Earthlike world some eighty years away. It’s a long shot, and everyone knows it.

But when the twelve brave men and women of the Gaia reach their destination and are woken from their cryogenic suspension, they learn several upsetting facts. One: The follow-up missions they were promised were never sent, cancelled by a World Council more concerned with matters back home. Two: Sirius C is already inhabited. Three: The inhabitants of Sirius C look exactly like us, and are friendly. They knew we were coming. They’ve been waiting, and they’re ready to answer our questions. But what are they hiding?

Now mission commander Jordan Kell has to keep his people from losing hope and faith, even as every preconception and expectation they have is challenged and shattered. At every turn, they learn more about New Earth and the people who live there. But every answer brings with it more questions, and it’s only through careful probing that they’ll understand what’s really going on. But what happens when some members of the crew fall in love with the inhabitants? What happens when others prove incapable of accepting the impossibility of it all and mutiny? And how does New Earth tie into the fate of the original Earth?

New Earth fits into Bova’s long-running Grand Tour sequence of novels, which outline the gradual exploration of the solar system and beyond, a compelling and often provocative history of the future comparable to anything Heinlein or Asimov ever produced. It falls near the end of the current timeline, though a few familiar faces, such as Pancho Lane and Douglas Stavenger appear behind the scenes. However, no real knowledge of the other books is necessary to pick this one up. All you need to know is that Earth is going through a rough patch, and we’ve sent a mission to a planet some eight light years away in the hopes of finding a new home, or at least new resources.

Bova plays an intriguing game with this book. The truth about Sirius C and its inhabitants is like an onion, with each layer revealing more about what’s going on, while raising another series of questions and contradictions. It’s very much a matter of semantics and personal growth, as Jordan and his crew have to learn to accept everything, question everything, and figure out how to ask the right questions. The ending suggests that Bova is setting us up for something vast and epic and far-reaching.

In some ways, this book is really quite disconcerting. I’ve always seen Bova as the sort of writer who marries character-driven stories to hard science; all of his best material works because he makes it believable. The science is real, the science fiction is plausible, and the characters relatable. Whenever he brings in aliens, they’re likewise believable because they’re, well, alien. They appear as fossils or the sort of things which can thrive in the otherwise inhospitable environments of Venus, or Jupiter. So for him to bring in aliens who like, act, walk, talk, and eat like us—aliens who are in every way compatible and yet just slightly off, it’s like yanking the rug out from under our feet. I’m so used to him focusing on these human-centric stories that bringing in aliens at all threw me off-balance.

It works…and it doesn’t. It depends on how much you want to suspend your disbelief. The Grand Tour has never exactly been a series notable for its truly out-there elements. Everything to date has been relatively rooted in the human experience, from the greenhouse effect to cities on the Moon to archaeology on Mars to corporate wars in the Asteroid Belt to religious and moral conflict on every level. But here, it’s like Bova is saying, “Forget all that petty stuff, it’s time to grow up and think about the universe. We’re not alone, and it’s time to get our act together.” Groovy.

Bova does an excellent job of handling the various reactions of the crew of the Gaia. Some react with skepticism and doubt, even xenophobia and fear. Jordan embraces his new friends…literally, as he’s the first one to accept their offers of friendship and cooperation at face value, and the first to develop a special friendship with one of the natives. There’s plenty of room for character growth here.

On the downside, it’s a book in which very little actually happens. There’s an astounding amount of talking, and exchanges of information. Apart from a few tense moments, just about all conflict is character-driven and dealt with in a reasonable manner. And it’s a little bit preachy, as Bova gets in some good digs about climate change and the greenhouse effect:

Jordan thought about how many apparent truths had been denied in the past. How many human beings had died because some men made up their minds to ignore the truth, to overlook the data, to denigrate those who warned of impending problems. Wars that could have been stopped before they started. Diseases that spread because people denied their reality. The greenhouse warming that was changing Earth’s climate: it could have been averted, or at least mitigated.

I’m not saying he’s wrong, and I’m not going to take a guess at how this might relate to current headlines, but Bova’s not exactly going for the subtle approach here.

New Earth is an interesting, even fascinating book. However, it doesn’t as of yet feel like it truly belongs in the Grand Tour sequence. It’s a little too fanciful, a little too disconnected from the more grounded entries we’ve seen in the past. The developments here take things to a new level, and only time will tell if it’s for the better, or the worse. As noted, this isn’t a book for those looking for action or excitement; it’s a thinking man’s science fiction, and one in which things go a bit too smoothly for the participants. I liked this book, but Bova’s done a lot better in the past. Nevertheless, it’ll be enlightening to see where he goes from here.

New Earth is available now. You can read an excerpt here.

Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.

James Nicoll
1. JamesDavisNicoll
What, if any, is the relationship between this and his 1972 novel As on a Darkling Plain?
D. Bell
2. SchuylerH
@2: As I remember (hazily, through the fog of time), As on a Darkling Plain also featured a mission to Sirius and a first contact meeting with intelligent inhabitants of a planet around it.
Michael M Jones
3. MichaelMJones
I've never read As on a Darkling Plain, but my research shows that it actually involved a mission to the Saturnian moon of Titan, and was part of the Others Saga. So I guess there's no real relation. Pretty sure it's completely unrelated to his Grand Tour sequence, which he's been working on since the early '90s... or mid '80s depending on which books officially count.
D. Bell
4. SchuylerH
@3: I've been looking too and its seems we're both right: As on a Darkling Plain is a fixup from the "Others" saga. The first section, which appears to be partly based on "Pressure Vessel," is set on Titan, while the second section, dealing with a mission to Sirius, is based on "Foeman, Where Do You Flee?". The final act, original to the fixup, ties together the Titan and Sirius strands.
5. selidor
it’s a thinking man’s science fiction
Huh. At last, the reason I never quite engaged with Bova's writing comes to light. I'll just take my gender over to this other side of the bookstore.
Michael M Jones
6. MichaelMJones
@5 Would it help if by "man" I meant "person?" I used the somewhat timeworn phrase without thinking, sorry. Although I'm sure we could also have a fascinating discussion on the role of women in Bova's work...
8. selidor
@6: I appreciate your thoughtful response. I enjoyed your review.
James Nicoll
9. JamesDavisNicoll
The similarities are: mission to Sirius, habitable planet there, inhabited. Enough to make me wonder if he rethought elements of the original and was taking a second run at it.

"I've never read As on a Darkling Plain"

I am in no way a Bova expert but I have read 34 of the novels, four or five of the collections, five of the anthologies, and a handful of his non-fiction books. And the run of Analog he edited.

IMS, in the 1970s book, the inhabitants were the descendents of survivors from a mild chiding a previous human civilization got from benevolent aliens, said chiding taking the form of turning Sirius B from a main sequence star into a white dwarf.

Interestingly I was recently watching an email discussion on what happens to habitable planets when a nearby (in the case of the conversation, 50 AU, I think) star does the red giant > planetary nebula thing. It's not entirely good: it pushes the planet's magnetosphere down below the surface and then blowtorches the atmosphere away in very short order. Sirius B is a lot closer to A and any planets it has than 50 AU (and it used to be closer before it shed at least half its mass).

I assume there being a habitable world with Earthlike biosphere in a system so young and violent is covered by "a miraculously, impossibly, Earthlike world".
Fredrik Coulter
11. fcoulter
@3: According to Ben Bova's web site, the following books (in chronological order) make up The Grand Tour:

1. POWERSAT (Tor Books 2005)
2. EMPIRE BUILDERS (Tor Books, 1993)
3. MARS (Bantam Books, 1992)
4. MOONRISE (Avon Books, 1996)
5. MOONWAR (Avon Books, 1998)
6. RETURN TO MARS (Avon Books, 1999)
7. THE PRECIPICE (Tor Books, 2001)
8. JUPITER (Tor Books, 2001)
9. THE ROCK RATS (Tor Books, 2002)
10. THE SILENT WAR (Tor Books, 2004)
11. THE AFTERMATH (Tor Books, 2007)
12. SATURN (Tor Books, 2003)
13. LEVIATHANS OF JUPITER (Tor Books, 2011)
14. TITAN (Tor Books, 2006)
15. MERCURY (Tor Books, 2005)
16. MARS LIFE (Tor Books, 2008)
17. VENUS (Tor Books, 2000)
18. THE RETURN (Tor Books, 2009)
20. FARSIDE, Tor Books, 2013
21. NEW EARTH, Tor Books, 2013

No, I don't know what the absence of #19 means. The earliest book was in 1992.
James Nicoll
12. JamesDavisNicoll
Bova has tied formerly non-Grand Tour series into the Grand Tour before. The Return is an cross-over with the Voyagers series (the characters from the second get to the first via a negative space wedgie) and I think the Sam Gunn started off as non-GT and then became GT later on.
Michael M Jones
13. MichaelMJones
I've seen lists that add in PRIVATEERS after Powersat, but then contend that it's an alternate history and thus its place may or may not be canon. FARSIDE (2013) comes between 7 and 8 and seems to set up the plot for NEW EARTH.

And so on. The problem with nearly 2 dozen books written over almost 30 years is that there's a fair amount of either contradiction or loose continuity, especially when he wrote a bunch of unconnected things and then decided to connect them later on. You get the feeling that he's been improvising some of the time, and is determined to leave this as his magnum opus, no matter what it takes. So maybe this is indeed his attempt to tie together older or more unrelated work.

And yes, a major plot point is "how is Sirius C so much like Earth, when it's in such a particularly inhospitable location?" The answer(s) take up a lot of the latter half of the book's plot.

I consider myself a Bova fan, but there's a -lot-, especially his older work, that I haven't read. Hs output is considerable...and for a while it was hard to find in the bookstores when it first came out because apparently B&N didn't feel like carrying him. Go figure.
D. Bell
14. SchuylerH
@13: Privateers is the one where the USSR is still around, isn't it? I didn't read much Bova because I got sidetracked after finding The Man Who Counts but, coincidentally just before finding this review, I read "The Dueling Machine" and "The Next Logical Step" on Project Gutenberg. Unfortunately, almost all of my memories of the earlier Bova have been replaced with memories of Poul Anderson. Any recommendations of where to start again?
Dennis Gray
15. blackandgold

Read them only in relation to each other when they are direct sequels/series, and let yourself be pleasantly surprised when someone pops up where you didn't think they were going to be. IE, read Mars and Return to Mars in order, read Moonwise and Moonwar in order, don't worry about reading Moonwar or Mars in any particular order. That's how I've read Ben Bova, his works stand quite well on their own without worrying too much about where they fit in the Grand Tour.
D. Bell
16. SchuylerH
@15: Thanks, I don't want to get too caught up in continuity.
D. Bell
18. SchuylerH
@17: I don't think selidor quite meant it that way. From what I've read of Bova, he is quite weak when it comes to the creation of female characters. I accept that Bova is from a certain era and a certain mindset and it hasn't excessively detracted from my enjoyment of the stories I've read but, as with so many things, your mileage might vary. In this case, I think that selidor probably wants to read stories with stronger female characters than Bova is offering. There's nothing wrong with that.
Bridget McGovern
22. BMcGovern
Re: unpublished comments. This issue was resolved in comment #6-- let's please stick to the topic at hand and, as always, keep the conversation civil.
James Nicoll
23. JamesDavisNicoll
From what I've read of Bova, he is quite weak when it comes to the creation of female characters.rom what I've read of Bova, he is quite weak when it comes to the creation of female characters.

To put it kindly. Part of Titan is driven by the assumption pretty much all women want babies and lots of them. Same with The Return, which is why the protagonists secretly put a cap on the number of babies women can have.

On a related note, there is the guy in Mars Life who fled a sexual assault charge on Earth; he is quite bitter about this. From what we see of his behavior on Mars it is completely believable what he intended as subtle courtship involved behavior no reasonable person would think acceptable (one rarely sees a character who would benefit so profoundly from the gift of a Realdoll and certainly it make life better for the women around him) but in fact I think the reader is supposed to take the obligate groper's claim of innocence at face value.

I actually think his recent stuff is worse in this regard than his 1970s stuff like Millennium or Colony but I have not reread them in years.
D. Bell
24. SchuylerH
@23: Eh, I had no idea... Do you think Millennium is safe at least?
James Nicoll
25. JamesDavisNicoll
I don't know. I did reread it in 2000 as part of the whole Millennial Review thing (where to get past reader's block I picked a unifying theme and then read and reviewed one book a day for a month) and I liked it *but* it was one of my favourite books as a teenager and I don't know if when I reread it 16-year-old me was in the drivers seat.

if Kinsman were running a current day military base, he'd be in serious danger of a sexual harrassment charge.

Yeah, Bova's not the place to look for non-sexist material. Although Millennium was written in a time when it was socially acceptable for men to stalk and sexually harass their female staff, Bova saw that other aspects of society would change but not that one.

At the same time he was working on Millennium he quintupled the fraction of women being published in Analog (and even had an all-women issue with more than half of the contributors being women). He seems to have reconsidered this stance, though:
D. Bell
26. SchuylerH
@25: Well, that was egregious. I might consider it if desperate but for now I think I'll fill in the gaps in my Pohl collection.
James Nicoll
27. JamesDavisNicoll
At the same time he was working on Millennium he quintupled the fraction of women being published in Analog

A fraction that fell by half under his successor*. The successor's successor at Analog seems more open to buying SF by women, though.

* Pretty abruptly, too:
Year F/M
1976 0.20
1977 0.21
1978 0.23 (Schmidt takes over Dec 1978)
1979 0.10
1980 0.09
2011 0.15

More recently, for 2013:
Month F/T
Jan-Feb 0.04
March 0.07
April 0.13 Trevor Quachri takes over
May 0.19
June 0.11
July- Aug 0.21
James Nicoll
28. JamesDavisNicoll
In Bova's defense, while Frank Colt, Angry Black Man
Working to Overthrow the System From Within could maybe have been written better, at least Bova had POC characters whose depiction one could criticize. In a lot of cases, the characters ranged from ivory to pink in colour and the other sorts of human were well off stage, if they existed at all. See, for example, this discussion of Shipwright from a couple of years after MILLENNIUM came out:

Analog April 1979, Brass Tacks, p. 176

Dear Ben, Just finished "I Put My Blue Genes On" by Orson Scott Card. Good story. But it reminded me that all your stories have one major fault. They are racist by implication and by supposition. They ignore the possibility that Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Ethiopians etc. might found civilizations in the stars. Card at least mentioned the Chinese (only to explain briefly that they had all been wiped out) to concentrate on the real world beaters of 2810 A.D. -- the Americans (granted they came from Hawaii), the Russians, and the Brazilians. Western civilization all. Most of your stories just ignore the existence of Earth's other races. Even a story about a planet peopled with the descendants of Japanese space explorers (Donald Kingsbury's excellent "Shipwright") feels it necessary to explain that this is an out-of-the-way, backward planet and that real interstellar civilization is white. Hope that in the future your writers will come to accept the fact that Nigerians as well as WASPs are star bound. Gordon Heseltine Canandaigua, NY 14424

To which someone at Analog answered:
Why is there no science fiction written by Eastern authors? (Assuming Russia and Japan are Western nations.) Because Eastern cultures are a-scientific. They will get to the stars aboard Western ships -- no matter who builds them.
James Nicoll
29. JamesDavisNicoll
Note that using non-white characters in SF will attract a hatedom:

(I expect most of the hatemail in Bova's inbox has to do with him using anthropogenic climate change; nothing brings out the caneshakers like a suggestion adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere could have a measurable effect. Well, unless you're terraforming Mars: then anthropogenic climate change is not only possible, it's easy peasy)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment