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Mercury
Ben Bova
Tor hardcover $24.95

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Ben Bova's long and successful SF career has seen him win loads of awards and publish over 100 pieces of science fact and fiction. Mercury sees him return to his grand tour of the Solar system and the universe he's described in books such as Moonrise, Mars and Saturn. Bova's style is to combine melodramatic space opera with discussions of real scientific ideas, giving us adventure, romance, tragedy and some nice juicy SF ideas too. This book follows the same formula.

The plot of Mercury is essentially that of The Count Of Monte Cristo. A priest, a biologist and an engineer meet at the construction of the Earth's first space elevator. The priest, a member of the Earth's New Morality is worried about uses of nanotechnology while the engineer and biologist compete for the attentions of a woman they first met at university. The engineer, Mance Bracknell, is building the elevator cables using viruses engineered to do the work of nanobots and is therefore threatening the new morality's prohibition on nanotechnology and the profits the Yamagata Corporation is getting from ferrying equipment into orbit. The elevator is sabotaged resulting in it crashing to Earth and killing millions of people. Mance is sentenced to a life in the outer rim and it's only years later that he returns to take revenge on those who benefited from his being blamed for the millions of deaths. Mance, living under an assumed name ruins and kills the priest, the biologist and the corporation owner before dying himself. Unlike Dumas' story of the Count, our hero never gets back with the woman he loved and doesn't survive to benefit from his actions. Herein lies one of this book's problems.

Bova's characterisation tends to be quite broad and simplistic, frequently dipping into national stereotypes. In other books this approached has produced some memorable characters that were either funny, noble or idealistic. This book's characterisation is typically broad but the result is a lack of any likeable character. Mance is intense, the biologist is whiny and ambitious, the priest is stupid and moralistic and the only truly innocent character comes across as cold and calculating, choosing her mate on the basis of how successful they are (this is without mentioning the Japanese guy who acts like something out of a samurai movie grunting and talking about honour or the Scottish guy who looks like a claymore-swinging clansman and drinks like a fish). The situation is not improved by Bova's inability to convey any real emotions. Characters love or hate each other because they say that they love and hate each other. This means that you're left rather unbothered about the fates of any particular character. Which is disappointing because past novels have shown that Bova is able to create not only memorable but also affecting characters and stories. The whole novel has a feeling of being ever so slightly stale.

The ideas Bova discusses (space elevators, power satellites and Buckminsterfullerene) are well charted. Even Bova himself points out that the idea of a space elevator was first popularised over 20 years ago. He doesn't bring anything new to these ideas and presents them as data-files giving an impression that he's talking down to the reader. This is compounded by the fact that power satellites are the subject of his next book, suggesting that Bova is wringing more and more out of existing ideas rather than going out and looking for new ones. Even on the level of social commentary, Bova comes up wanting.

There are parts of Mercury that read like an Ayn Rand novel. Bova invokes the New Morality as a way of taking a crack at the fundies in the US and the International Consortium of Universities to have a go at academia. Both are quickly compared to the Spanish Inquisition and are made up of fussy old reactionaries who either don't see the way ahead as it's forged by brave idealists or think that what the idealists are doing is evil and so should be suppressed. The New Morality is totally unbelievable as its beliefs seem to be entirely composed of denouncing the evils of secularism and science, while academia is composed entirely of self-serving ambitious backstabbers. Neither caricature gives any insight into academic conservatism or religious fundamentalism and therefore any attacks levelled at them are intellectually vacuous straw men.

So while the book doesn't have any good ideas and the characterisation and dialogue fail to sparkle it's difficult to really hate Bova's work. The ideas it does tackle are discussed in a clear and accessible manner so while a seasoned SF fan might find them uninteresting a reader who requires less of a challenge might enjoy them. The book's also well paced and is a good length, which, in the age of 1000-page monoliths, is something worthy of praise. Not particularly good Bova, but Bova nonetheless.
Mercury by Ben Bova

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