Saturn by Ben Bova
Tor HCVR: ISBN0312872186 PubDate: June 1, 2003
Review by Ernest Lilley
384 pages List price 24.95
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Ben Bova is out to map the solar system with his "Grand Tour" series of loosely connected books.. Saturn, his latest book, continues the story forward from The Rock Rats, his story of exploration and exploitation in the asteroid belt, and sends a massive habitat further than humans have ever gone before…to the planet with the big rings.
Onboard is “Holly” Lane, the revived sister of Pancho Lane, the plucky Texan gal who starred in The Precipice (October 2001 SFRevu) and had become Chairman of the board of Astro corporation by that stories end. Holly spent the first two books in this part of the “Grand Tour” saga in cryogenic suspension to halt the cancer ravaging her body. Revived and cured, the downside being that cryogenic restorees return to the world without their memories.
Pancho’s success meant that she could afford to cure her sister, and her devotion meant that she would be there to see her through the painful relearning of skills that were lost to the storage, from potty training to living on her own. For all this effort she wound up with a sister/ward with a physical body in her early twenties but with the life experience of an early adolescent.
Everyone leaves home sometime, and the Lanes never seem to do things by halves. Holly signed on with the Goddard space habitat mission to study Saturn, going with a thousand other people that Earth isn’t too sad to see the last of to support a long term scientific study of the Solar System’s most spectacular world.
Earth has suffered from climatic catastrophe and religious revolution, leaving the world largely under the control of a collection of moral majorities from major religions. The expedition is funded largely by these religious groups and though it is billed as a scientific exploration, the underlying agenda is a sociological experiment in world building. It’s not a good experiment from a scientific standpoint though, because the deck is rigged, on board is Malcolm Eberly, a one time con man and swindler, lately sprung from prison to create a religious society out of the habitat.
Holly worships Malcolm, who’s probably old enough to be her father, and still crooked as they come. If he doesn’t turn the entire complement to the sort of fundamentalist community that the backers want, he’ll get a trip back to prison, so he’s powerfully motivated to convert the Goddard’s compliment.
There are several ethical schoolsa board to mix things up. First, there are the scientists, preoccupied with research and can’t unable to imagine that the voyage isn't all about them. Then there are the colonists, a motley collection of folks the fundamentalist governments of Earth are happy to be rid of. Finally, there's Malcolm, and his friends... a cadre of carefully inserted sleepers is out to manipulate things according to the plans of his fundamentalist leashholders.
Unfortunately, this cultural conflict takes all the story's attention away from the place they're off to, or even the business of space living itself. The habitat is big, roomy, and originally designed as a retirement home in Earth-Lunar space. As a result, We spend a lot of time watching Holly be naïve, wishing the big man would notice her, and much of the rest watching Malcolm’s cronies seed discontent.
The bright spot in all this Machievellianism is a vid crew along for the opportunity to do a thrill video about the first human to set foot on Titan, Saturn’s largest (I think) moon. Manuel Gaeta, the Evil Knieval of the 21st century, has climbed Mars’s Olympus Mons and snowboarded back down, dropped into the atmosphere of Venus and more…and now he wants to make a one man descent to step onto Titan. Bova must placed the stuntman in the ensemble to liven things up with a some sex, danger and excitement, which is a good thing because the rest of the cast is pretty lame. The scientific head of the expedition gets a lot of scenes in his bachelor apartment, conservatively drinking whiskey (neat) ruminating over the progress of the the grand social experiment and … oh yes, enjoying snuff porn, or at least torture porn. Pity that it serves no other plot purpose than to give him a blackmailable weakenss.
All the characters in this thing are pretty weak, except Pancho Lane, who’s kept offstage for the entire book, and her weakness has always been her sister, who is very much center stage, bumbling along through a fog of infatuation and uttering Lunar valley girl speak at every turn.
If this was a standalone novel, I'd say pass on it, but since it's part of a much larger structure, I expect that it sets up more interesting story lines to come. I expect that the author is looking forward to what happens after the habitat makes it to Saturn space and sets up camp, and so am I. At least his main characters will have grown up a bit by then.