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review by Duncan Lawie
Ben Bova has been in the science fiction business longer than I have been alive. While he could rest easy on his laurels, in the last decade he has produced a new series of books, each taking a planet of the Solar system as its subject. Jupiter is the latest. The book opens on Earth, setting out the control and agenda of the New Morality, a Christian moral force that, in concert with similar organisations of various religious origins, has reshaped the world. Their essentially fundamentalist perspective has put them at odds with the scientific worldview, but they have been unable to curtail science completely. An uneasy truce within the International Astronautical Authority has allowed the existence of research stations in the Jovian system, but the New Morality is worried by what they believe to be occurring there. As a result, our protagonist Grant Archer, a naive graduate student, is easily manipulated into travelling to Jupiter to spy on behalf of the New Morality.
This set-up is convincingly claustrophobic, displaying the effectiveness of thought control and its success in drawing the problems of an overpopulated planet to a manageable scale. Archer's transit to Research Station Gold and his troubles once he gets there, carry through this unhappy mood, managing a shapeless uncertainty reminiscent of Lem's Solaris. However, once the science of the novel builds up, Bova's true interests are revealed. The distant Earth administration is rapidly cast into the background as Archer makes friends with the base scientists and is drawn into studying the fluid dynamics of Jupiter's vast ocean. The essential premise of this book is that there is a shell of liquid water between the high cloud layers and hot depths of the mega-planet and, according to the current mantra, where there is water and energy there must be life.
Bova writes both interestingly and convincingly when discussing and developing this aspect of the novel. He makes a water ocean on Jupiter seem a perfectly reasonable discovery and shows the methods by which frail humanity might explore such alien worlds in a thorough, matter of fact manner. This facility of description means his characterisation seems comparatively wooden. Archer is developed reasonably well, but he appears to totally forget the conflicting requirements of his position and his secret mission. The political dangers are brought into the foreground in a number of effective spells but whenever they are not the primary topic they disappear so completely as to not even maintain an undercurrent of concern. Perhaps this is a genuine portrait of the focused scientist, but such a single-minded, doubt free individual seems an unlikely product of Archer's background. Nevertheless, the novel holds itself up on the quality of the scientific speculation alone. In the final analysis, this is an entertaining homily on the importance of scientific enquiry, with the added moral that reasonableness in science and religion should be allied against extremes of either sort.
tZ Big Planet: the worlds of Jupiter in SF - by Steven Hampton
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