Is there a rule somewhere decreeing all near-future, Solar System-based SF to be corporate raider novels? Or that colonies in space have revolt against their oppressive Earth overlords before the novel ends? I suppose that both make sense, but I was somewhat surprised at the extensive parallels between Bova and Steele’s Moon novels. These went far beyond a requisite shout out to Heinlein’s seminal The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and included near identical themes and details.
I should probably explain the background to my reading choices, as that will no doubt clarify my biases and expectations going into this review. After reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, I wanted to delve further into our Solar System, leaving behind for a time vast interstellar empires and alien galaxies. One of the most prominent and logical places to start is Ben Bova’s Grand Tour. Because I tend to take things chronologically (in story terms, not publishing dates) and not wanting to tackle anyone’s Mars after Robinson (because that would be unfair), I set into Moonrise. Bova’s two books whetted my appetite for other Lunar possibilities, so after consulting The Moon in Science Fiction, I requested Lunar Descent on interlibrary loan. It is inevitable, I suppose, that these three books will be compared with the Mars trilogy, just because of the order in which I read everything.
Let’s begin with the similarities. Both books start with a Moonbase already present, though not perhaps thriving. Both bases are privately owned; this is, I think, an accurate prediction considering the direction government sponsored space exploration (or much of anything) is heading right now. Both stories occasionally let the plot drift along on autopilot while they paint vignettes of Moon life. Many of the technical details are similar – the bases are tunneled into the Lunar regolith, the base economy is based on mining and production, with a mass driver sending products into orbit, both bases rely heavily on ice discovered at the poles, Steele’s mines Helium3, while Bova’s is considering it. The role of main bad guy differs, but the role of enabling bad guy is ably filled by the Japanese in both books. Finally, the bases are both undermined by their own companies at one point or another, and end up revolting against one authority or another. Consequently, both must fend off invasions of armed troops using naught but their wits. I am wondering if the similarities in bases stem from a master plan somewhere in the NASA archives. It’s something to look into.
What about differences? They are not, after all, identical. Bova’s story is driven by broader concerns. The Moon is less the focus of the book than the interplay between nanotechnology and religious fundamentalism. He is writing, I suppose, of the human condition, with the Moon in a supporting role. Steele keeps his focus much narrower. His story is only about the Moon and the people on it, without much attempt to illuminate profound truths. Bova consequently takes a more top-down approach, dealing with political, business and religious leaders, Moonbase supervisors, company board members, and whatnot. He occasionally dips a toe into the hoi polloi, but most of this story is about the elites. Steele tells his story from the workers’ point of view; the station manager is the hero, but he is much more a man of the people than a boardroom denizen. Further, Steele stays mainly away from weightier questions and concerns himself with the day to day routine of living on the Moon. Redemption makes a cameo, as does love, but neither these nor any other philosophical questions drive the narrative.
Finally, how does the Moon figure into all of this? Again, I read these books after the Mars trilogy, hoping for (without really expecting) a similar ode to our celestial neighbor. Steele comes the closest. Some of his characters have genuine attachment to the Moon and there are occasional glimpses affection toward the gray landscape. Bova, for his part, uses the Moon more as a convenient location for the action. Doug Stavenger obviously likes the Moon a great deal, and this comes through at times, but the Moon recedes to the background for most of the story. I wonder how much of this reflects general perception of the Moon. It seems that, for whatever the reason, the Moon has less romantic pull on us and has become a mine and staging point for more interesting locales. I could chalk this up partially to the Moon’s desolation, though what exactly makes Mars’ red desolation better than Lunar gray desolation is unclear. It may just be that Robinson has an entirely unique creation with his trilogy and I am remiss in looking for a repeat for every sphere in our Solar System.
A verdict about the books is about due. Bova remains a consummate craftsman. His books feel well-crafted in the way a house might be well-built. Daring, artistic, visionary, and inspiring are not words I would use to describe a Bova creation. Instead, the stories are competent, consistent, and methodical. This is good and bad, obviously. I enjoy his books, which can be difficult to put down, but they don’t leave me breathless or in awe. To be fair, the number of books that have that effect on me is small, while the number that leave me scratching my head, frustrated with plot holes, or just plain underwhelmed is entirely too high. The Moon duology is something I’m glad I read, I plan to read more of the Grand Tour, but they won’t go down as genre-defining classics.
I have slightly more mixed feelings about Lunar Descent. While I enjoyed the closer look at the Moon, I’m already feeling the details slip from memory. The plot was pretty thin, with a final conflict that felt obligatory rather than natural. Granted, I was in this primarily for the setting, so in that sense I wasn’t disappointed. My final recommendation has to be somewhat limited though, since anyone looking for characters, plot, visionary ideas and whatnot will probably leave disappointed. Like Bova, I will probably continue to read Steele, but for me he isn’t on the Must Read Now at All Costs list.
Rating: Everton – Aston Villa on ESPN 2 on a Saturday morning. Not inspiring, but a good product in a time slot when nothing else is on.