The Precipice (Asteroid Wars, Book 1) 
by Ben Bova
Hardcover - 416 pages (October 2001)
Tor Books; ISBN: 0312848765
Review by Amy Harlib
 
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Ben Bova, master of nuts-and-bolts hard SF adds another volume to his next century saga of solar system exploration---a companion to Venus (2000) and Jupiter (2001).. The Precipice, first in a projected trilogy, refers in its title to the disastrous warming effects of the "Greenhouse Cliff" on Earth's climate, causing flooding to coastal cities, drought to farmlands and displacement of millions who face homelessness and famine. Hope to ease the plight of Earth lies in exploiting the resources of the Asteroid Belt, the logistics of which needs the finances and high technology of private industry and the novel pits two financial shakers and movers against each other to win the prizes of the belt. 

Astro Manufacturing, Inc., headed by struggling, maverick, idealist businessman Dan Randolph pools assets with Martin Humphries, (an unscrupulous, spoiled-brat), and heir to a vast fortune who's out to dominate the market in asteroid exploration. They team up with interested, independent parties who live on the Moon (as opposed to the obfuscating bureaucracies and the pessimistic New Morality of Earth), and set up a corporation to use new innovations in fusion and nanotechnology to construct an experimental spacecraft that will make mining the Asteroid Belt a financially viable reality. 

Randolph's is out to save humankind, while Humphries is out for himself, and the tension between the two drives the plot, with Humphries ready to do anything to get what he wants. 

Randolph himself goes on the mission in Starpower I along with the highly qualified, refreshingly feisty female pilots Pancho Lane and Amanda Cunningham and planetary geologist Lars Fuchs. Humphries, yearning for the expedition to fail in order to buy out Astro Corp. and eliminate any competition, attempts to recruit Lane to spy on her boss and at the same time he blackmails nanotech Nobel laureate Kris Cardenas to sabotage the ship, an action that torments the brilliant lady scientist. Just to add to the fun, Humphries, Cunningham and Fuchs make up a classic love triangle with Humphries slavering over Cunningham, who prefers the scientist to the billionaire. 

In his unadorned, workmanlike prose, Bova tells how Lane proves her loyalty to Randolph and how the various interpersonal, technical and corporate intrigues get resolved (some resolutions with unfortunate consequences amidst the triumphs). This involves cutting from vivid descriptions of the voyage to the Asteroid Belt to the activities of Humphries and Cardenas et al on the Moon's Selene Colony, making for exciting, suspenseful and emotionally gripping reading with a climax that thoroughly satisfies while leaving hints for developments to occur in future volumes. 

Bova's characters here could be considered his most complex and interesting so far with his story featuring strong and engaging women, a sympathetic and charismatic protagonist and a completely nasty yet believable antagonist. In the final analysis, The Precipice is a swift-paced, spaceworthy yarn that will add further luster to Bova's already confirmed stature among the best writers of thoughtfully conceived hard SF.

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu