Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review: Leviathans of Jupiter by Ben Bova

The best laid plans and all that. As I had previously mentioned, I was planning on reading Dreadnaught (check), Nights of Villjamur, The Quantum Thief, and then something else as my goal for the summer. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way. I wasn’t really getting into Nights of Villjamur, though it’s a book that went back into my reading pile – I’d like to revisit it when I’m more in the mood for a fantasy. I didn’t enjoy the writing of The Quantum Thief at all; I only made it through the first chapter or so before putting it down. That’s no offense to the author or the book, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I then tried The Dervish House and discovered much the same about that author. When I have 3 books in a row that aren’t working for me, I often find that’s when I go back to an author I know I enjoy – which is how I found myself reading Ben Bova’s Leviathans of Jupiter. Ben Bova over the past decade (and more as he ties in earlier works of his) has been creating a near-future history of our solar system, a fairly realistic look at how humans might explore the planets and the technological advances we might make over the next 100 years. Most of the books in this series are named after particular planets, and in this case we’ve got a semi-sequel to my favorite Ben Bova book, Jupiter. In Jupiter, which takes place approximately 20 years before Leviathans of Jupiter, human explorers discover giant whale-like creatures living beneath the waves of the planetary ocean which covers the surface of the planet. But because the trip is so risky (due to the extreme pressure created by the giant world) and the fact that it cost some of those prior explorers their lives, humans have not tried to make contact again. But Grant Archer, one of the original explorers and now Chief of the Space Station in orbit around Jupiter, believes that the Leviathans are intelligent – because one of the creatures helped their exploration craft escape the gravity of the planet. Now he has arranged it so that a new prototype craft has been built in secret around Jupiter, and he plans to send a new crew back to make meaningful contact with the Leviathans and prove they are intelligent. Among the crew going on this adventure is a cyborg trying to atone for the crimes he committed during the Asteroid Wars, when he was responsible for killing hundreds when destroying a space station. There’s also the spacecraft’s designer, who will find a connection with the mission controller as they both see the ship as their baby. Finally there are two scientists, one who has spent his life trying to develop meaningful communication with Dolphins, and one who has studied how micro-organisms behave – a gamble which Grant believes will pay off because he thinks these giant creatures biology behaves the same way as that tiniest of Earth life. But along with the crew’s arrival comes a representative from the Earth’s scientific advisory board, and she has a personal grudge against Grant, whom she blames for her sister’s death all those years ago. She will do anything she can to keep him from killing more scientists, even if she has to kill a few herself to ensure that no one else suffers the same fate. While Leviathans of Jupiter may not be as strong a book as the original Jupiter, that’s not really a fair comparison as I’ve mentioned it’s my favorite Ben Bova book. Because we (the reader) already know that the Leviathans exist (as opposed to wondering if the human explorers would actually discover them in the first book), it takes away some of the excitement and at times feels a little like treading water. But Bova wisely spends a large section of the book just allowing the reader to get to know this new crew – so that when they finally do descend into Jupiter’s Ocean, you are very attached to them and have a stronger connection to their mission and what it means to each one of them. I’ve mentioned in the past that Bova sometimes falls into the trap of making a psudeo-conservative religious conglomerate into the “bad guys” in these books, them having taken over most of the governments back on Earth – fortunately, he has stepped away from that here. It becomes a much more personal conflict by relating it to the prior mission, and more believable coming from a woman who has political ambitions and is afraid of the power Grant Archer might be able to wield should his mission succeed. Grant is one of Bova’s most fascinating characters, as a man of science and a believer in God, and it was nice in this book not to have him in some crisis of faith because he’s not trying to dispute belief because of the existence of other life in the universe. There is no conflict in him about science coexisting alongside faith, and by playing that down it actually works to the benefit of both the character and the author – there is no need for conflict and it makes him seem more reasonable, more human, than anyone taking a more extreme view of one side or the other. There may be better books to get started in Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series, but each book can really be read in any order, as they’ve been written out of sequence with books taking place all over the timeline (though I believe Leviathans of Jupiter may be the farthest out in the future so far in the series). That said it’s a great book, full of memorable characters (I’ve focused on Grant Archer in the review, but each of the crewmembers are as fully developed and make you enjoy the time you spend reading about them) and good old fashioned swashbuckling space adventures. Ben Bova has a particular style that I enjoy, a combination of the old-school Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers type of stories combined with the realism of near-future space exploration, like something NASA is just on the cusp of being able to do. If that kind of combination sounds appealing to you, I’d highly recommend picking up any of Ben Bova’s books, including Leviathans of Jupiter.

7 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad you bruoght this to my attention. I used to read quite a lot of Bova but got away from him in the 80s and haven't been back. But I've heard good things about his solar system series and I want to get some of these

Jim Haley said...

The official timeline of the Grand Tour books is here:

http://www.benbova.com/gradtourlist.html

I personally recommend Powersat, Mars, The Precipice (book 1 of the Asteroid Wars), and Jupiter as great places to "start". Return to Mars is actually a better book than the first, in my opinion, and Titan is better than Saturn (Titan being the "sequel") - and the whole Asteroid Wars novels are worthwhile. I didn't care for the Moon books, and the first book I read was Venus, which is a very poor place to start (it should be read after the Asteroid War books).

Bets Davies said...

I'll admit at the front, I'm a fantasy girl. It takes a very specific mood for me to even look at sci fi--same as you appear to feel about fantasy.

However, it looks like this might be it. I generally lean towards fantasy because I am a character fiend. I would be quite happy with many of the fantasy characters I know if they just sat around a table and talked for the whole book. So to see you discuss how much time and energy in character Bova steeps this book in really warms the cockles of my heart. Plus, the mission is of interest to me.

Only prob--I've avoided reccs on Bova my whole life and haven't read a word by him. In a really weird way, with your description here, I feel as if this isn't a bad place to start. Am I wrong?

Jim Haley said...

Leviathans of Jupiter certainly does not require any knowledge of any other book in the Grand Tour "series", nor even of the original book (Jupiter). In some ways, Leviathans is better because it avoids the neo-conservative religious conflict of Jupiter, since it is set 20 years later - and really anything that you (as a reader) might need to know about the original book is told to you in this "sequel". I'm using lots of quotations because as a series or sequel these books should only be called such because they all take place in the same author built universe, but he generally makes each book very approachable for a newcomer - so if this one appeals to you, I wouldn't shy away from giving it a try.

Wilson said...

I <3 space sci-fi :) Here's hoping your next competition book giveaway is this one ^_^

SQT said...

I don't currently have this one Wilson. But maybe I can make some inquiries...

Nic said...

thanks for finger pointing to Ben Bova. His books seem to be interesting. After looking for the "Grand Tour" series I saw that there are more then 15 books in it, and there is no real chronological order.
So could somebody recommend me with which one / ones I should start?