Saturday, May 24, 2008

Book Review: Mercury

Recently, Dwayne Day wrote a piece in The Space Review that describes "solar sci-fi":

There are dozens of subgenres of sci-fi and one of them centers on near-future depictions of spaceflight, what one person has dubbed “solar sci-fi”. The basic tenets of this subgenre are that the stories are usually set within the next century, there are no space aliens, and the laws of physics apply. This entire subgenre is, for the most part, space geek pornography. It depicts pretty things that don’t exist in real life and it is ultimately bad for the soul. The stories rarely aspire to anything thought-provoking and are largely escapist fiction.

I recalled these words as I finished Ben Bova's Mercury during my sojourn in Boston. Now, to be fair, Mr. Bova does in fact throw in a few things that physics can't do yet, like develop radiation shields, space elevators, or equipment capable of surviving on the planet Mercury, and he has thrown in some alien life, but one must ask: are near-future stories dealing with near-term exploration in the solar system worthwhile? I would have to say yes. Sometimes it's easier to tell a story than rattle off the potential usefulness of various planetary bodies (inspiration, new resources, blah blah blah). Bova is continuing a tradition at least as old as Heinlein, drawing people into space-based adventures as a means of (hopefully) making the real thing happen someday.

What, then, does Bova do with the planet Mercury? Well, he places a variety of characters there (a Japanese businessman, a religious political officer, an ambitious scientist, and a cranky outpost manager). All of these characters have a mingled past that eventually gets explained in a few flashback chapters later in the book and then resolved in the "present" later. Query: are flashbacks or shifting time perspectives now mandatory in all science fiction? I'm trying to recall the last book I read that didn't include this literary device. Oh yeah: Oath of Fealty.

Bova takes the time to get his astronomy and environments right, and comes up with some clever technologies to make capture that futuristic feel: I particularly like the radiator fins on the back of the armored suits. At one point, the Japanese industrialist has a dialogue with a holographic Robert L. Forward, an eminent physicist who contributed more than his share of science fictional concepts and stories. I suppose I liked this bit because I met Forward at my first ISDC.

The story was more about melodrama than science fiction. I recognize the problem because I've been criticized of similar behavior. Meaning? The story is more about the characters' personal conflicts than solving particular science fictional problems. And if you strip away the technologies and weird environments, the story could be told on Earth, if you substitute a collapsed bridge for a collapsed space elevator or a more common Earth-based discovery for the discovery of alien life on Mercury. "Yeah, but those things ARE in the book, so it's science fiction, right?" Well, yes. I am trying to convey, however, my reading experience, not necessarily debate whether Mercury is or is not SF. The book was lacking for me in some way, and I can't put my finger on it.

This my first reading of one of Bova's "Grand Tour" books, so perhaps I'd have more appreciation for these characters, their histories, and their situations if I'd read more about them. I haven't read a great deal of SF lately. My free time has been consumed by philosophy, history, or space fact. SF was my entry into this space business, as Heinlein, Clarke, etc. intended. Now I'm in the biz, and trying to make things happen in the real world, and as a result, I don't necessarily like to waste my time on fiction when there are things to do here. I have Mars awaiting me on the bookshelf, too, so maybe I'll give the series a shot. However, Mercury in isolation didn't move me or provide any great insights to help me in this job of mine. I have a great respect for Bova, whom I've also met at a couple of cons (SF and NSS). He is both an author and an advocate and sees the great potential of space. However, not even Heinlein hit a home run every time at bat. This one is a base hit, maybe a double, but it'll be awhile before I pick up another.

No comments: