Strange New World: New Earth by Ben Bova

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.


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