Feature: An interview with Ben Bova
Conducted by Ernest Lilley
Feature Book: Rock Rats by Ben Bova

Previously in SFRevu: The Precipice (Asteroid Wars, Book 1): SFRevu Oct. 2001 / Jupiter: SFRevu Jan. 2001 / Moonwar: SFRevu March 98 / Moonrise: SFRevu March 98 / 2001: Time for a few words about Arthur C. Clarke: Ben Bova's Comments

Bibliography (sfsite):  Ben Bova Biography / Website: http://www.benbova.net/
More Info: Other Sources

SFRevu: How old were you when you started reading SF? What was the first book you read and how did it affect you? Who were your favorite authors growing up?

Bova: I started reading science fiction in my early teen years, with Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Among the first SF books I read were Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (brand new it cost $5 hardcover), and the first three of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.

SFRevu: When did you first get interested in Science? When you first went to the Philadelphia Planetarium, did it seem like something out of Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”?

Bova: When I first visited the Fels Planetarium in Philadelphia Isaac hadn't yet written "Nightfall!" We're talking Stone Age here! My school class went to the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia's wonderful science museum, whether we wanted to or not. Seeing a show at the Fels Planetarium was part of the day's activities. That's when I got interested in astronomy, and as things progressed, in science in general, astronautics in particular and - eventually - science fiction.

SFRevu: When did you submit your first story? Who published it?

Bova: I submitted a story to a local Philadelphia magazine, in 1949 or 1950. They bought it, but went bankrupt before they could publish it. At that time I had finished my first novel and was sending it to book publishers. Nobody wanted it because the plot was too fantastic, they thought. In my novel the Russians started putting satellites into Earth orbit, so the U.S. launched a crash program to get Americans to the Moon before the Russians could get there. In 1950 that was wild stuff for New York publishers. One of the editors who rejected the novel told me that anti-Communist witch-hunters such as Sen.Joseph McCarthy would crucify anyone connected with a book that suggests the Russians are smarter than we are.

SFRevu: The first SF I read was in a Winston SF Classic, that series of YASF from the 50s with awesome cover art. I noticed that you wrote a volume yourself. How long had you been writing when you wrote THE STAR CONQUERORS (1959)? Was doing a Winston SF Classic a big thing for you?

Bova: No, actually it was done in some anger. When my first novel went unpublished, the editor who told me about the Joe McCarthy problem suggested I write a novel that was set so far in the future that there would be no possible connection with contemporary politics. So I took a biography of Alexander the Great (by Harold Lamb) and projected the story into an interstellar background. That astronomical background, by the way, so intrigued my editor that he asked me to do a nonfiction book on stellar astronomy. That became my first nonfiction book, The Milky Way Galaxy.

SFRevu: Was there any editor that helped you learn your craft?

Bova: John W. Campbell Jr.. the editor of Astounding (later Analog) magazine. He was THE editor in the field of science fiction. There has never been another like him.

SFRevu: How many times have you been an editor? How did the first editorship come about?

Bova: I edited Analog for seven years (1971-78) after John Campbell died. The magazine’s publisher at that time was The Condè Nast Publications, Inc., publishers of Vogue, Glamour, and a lot of other big, national women’s magazines. They had acquired Analog when they bought out Street & Smith Publications in 1960. All they knew about Analog was that it made a modest profit every month, and Campbell ran it. When Campbell died, they asked a number of the magazine’s regular contributors to draw up lists of people who had written both fiction and nonfiction for the magazine. There were some very famous people on that list, but they selected me. When I asked why, the company executive who made the choice said my writings were the only ones he could understand! I have always felt grateful for my early training in newspapers: clarity is important.

SFRevu: Rock Rats seems to be the middle of a trilogy...the developmental book. How much of what you do to your main characters did you know about before hand? How much will get resolved in the next book?

Bova: I hardly ever know beforehand what my characters are going to do. That’s boring! I start a novel by creating two strong characters and putting them in conflict with each other. That generates the plot. I hope to resolve just about all of the problems in The Rock Rats in its sequel, The Silent War. But we’ll just have to see what the characters have to say about that.

SFRevu: Government doesn't seem to come off very well in your books. Earth's seems inept, especially in the face of the ecological meltdown of the planet. Are the Rock Rats doomed to the same fate? Can't they all just get along?

Bova: If people “got along” we wouldn’t need fiction. Governments often look inept when facing a new set of problems because governments, like almost all human institutions, are created to protect the status quo. New situations are difficult for them to handle. Science, on the other hand, is always coming up with new ideas, new discoveries, and creating new capabilities. That’s why politicians distrust scientists.

SFR: Who came up with the "Grand Tour" name for your current solar system series?

Bova: My readers, bless ‘em.

SFR: How many books there will be? I saw on your website that you've listed out all the planets (and Pluto) though some are under construction. Just out of curiosity, do you have any ideas for your Pluto plot? I mean, why would anyone want to go to Pluto? Except me, of course.

US CoverBova: I have a story arc for the whole Grand Tour series, which includes the Asteroid Wars novels, but I don’t have any hard-and-fast plan to do each and every planet in the solar system. At the moment I’m working on Saturn. But remember, the settings for these novels are backgrounds. Interesting though they may be, the novels are about people in conflict. Pluto might be an interesting place, but if I do a novel set there it will still be a novel about people, with the setting as a background. Now, the background can certainly interact in very meaningful ways with the characters, and even define the limits of what the characters can and cannot do. But my novels are about human beings, just like you and me, who happen to be in extraordinary places.

SFR: Who else you like? Are there any trends in SF/Fantasy that you would like to encourage?

Bova: Science fiction always seems, to me, to be heading off in many directions at once. I think that’s all to the good. I’d like to see more SF based solidly on real science and believable human characters, but the field is so large and there are so many people working in it that perhaps the best hope is just to sit back and let the chips fall where they may.

SFR: I saw in an interview that you were a fan of "The Man in the White Suit". I'm proud to say I have a copy myself and recommend it to friends often. What is it that you like about it?

Bova: It is the only movie I have seen that shows what a thrill a scientist gets when he finally is allowed to do the work he wants to do. Although it’s a comedy, it does a better job of showing what scientists are really like than any other film I’ve seen.

SFR: Can you name three other Science Fiction films that you like?

Bova: Other than The Man in the White Suit, I’d have to say: 2001, A Space Odyssey, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Galaxy Quest. There are few others, but pitifully few. Most of what Hollywood calls “sci-fi” is terrible.

SFRevu: What makes you cringe more in SF Film...bad science or bad scriptwriting?

Bova: My cringes are based on something more fundamental. Most “sci-fi” movies have no relationship to science fiction. They are cartoon strips that have alienated the majority of movie-goers from looking into published science fiction.

SFRevu: I remember reading your novel Cyberbooks, a story about how e-books might transform the publishing industry. So far, they don't seem to have lived up to that promise. Will they ever take off?

Bova: I think e-books will become the major medium for publishing, sooner or later. The costs of paper and its distribution keep going up, the costs of electronic books keeps coming down while the quality of the devices gets better. Just as paper replaced clay tablets, electronics will eventually replace paper.

SFRevu: How did you come to work on the CTV series "Starlost" as Science Advisor? Did they take your advice?

Bova: Harlan Ellison, the series’ creator and a dear friend, asked me. And no, they didn’t take my advice. Or his, come to think of it. Read my novel The Starcrossed. Only the names have been changed, to protect the guilty.

SFRevu: Are people still interested in science? Are we experiencing a flight from reason? Why? What can we or should we do about it?

Bova: Science has always been done by a small group of people, most of whom are so dedicated to science that they accept a lesser life style than they could have had they went into plumbing, or stock brokering, or lawyering. Our public school systems are really poor, especially in science and math. That’s the root cause of a lot of today’s problems.

SFRevu: Will the web change education?

Bova: Yes, but  the changes are small, to date. But they will grow.

SFRevu: Is it time to throw in the towel on manned space exploration, or can humanity still get out there? Should we?

Bova: We will be forced to develop space. As human population grows and we need more and more resources, we will be forced to begin using the resources of energy and raw materials that exist in space. The Harvard entymologist E. O. Wilson recently estimated that to bring everyone on Earth up to the standard of living of the average American would require four times the resources of our planet. Wilson concluded that we have to cut down on our consumption. Well, we’ve seen and measured resources that are THOUSANDS of times more than planet Earth can provide. Sooner or later we will go out and begin to develop them. That’s what my Grand Tour novels are all about.

SFRevu: Global warming is a central issue in your Asteroid Wars series. What is the current thinking on it? Are scientists divided along party lines over whether it actually exists? The last I heard computer weather models tend to result in global winter. Do we currently have the modeling capacity to examine it in simulation? Will we ever?

Bova: Most scientists are convinced global warming is real, and our own outpouring of greenhouse gases is contributing significantly to it. A small but vocal group of scientists (including several friends of mine) disagree. The measurements, however, show higher temperatures, earlier arrival of spring, melting glaciers, rising sea levels. I just hope that the increase is gradual, and not an abrupt discontinuity like the “greenhouse cliff” in my novels.

SFRevu: Now that we're living in the "next" century, does it look anything like the future you expected when you were a boy? What's surprised you for the better and the worse?

Bova: Best surprise: That we got to the Moon so early. Worst surprise: That we stopped going there.

Other Sources:

Ben Bova Online: http://www.benbova.com/
1999 Book Page Interveiw: http://www.bookpage.com/9906bp/ben_bova.html
Galaxy Online: http://www.galaxyonline.com/
Winston Science Fiction Classics:
Cyberhaven Interview: http://www.cyberhaven.com/books/benbova2.html
Starlost : http://www.snowcrest.net/fox/starlostf/starweek/index.html
An Aussie Interveiw: http://www.thei.aust.com/isite/btl/btlinbova.html
Locus Online (Nov 2000 Interview):http://www.locusmag.com/2000/Issues/11/Bova.html
Fantastic Fiction (UK): http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/authors/Ben_Bova.htm
Mars Review (Book-a-Minute): http://www.rinkworks.com/bookaminute/b/bova.mars.shtml  

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu                                                                                                                          sa 05.22.02