Genre: Hard SF
Publication Date: 2013
A small group of scientists land on a new planet, a paradise world much like Earth itself. But they are eighty years’ travel away from Earth, and no one is coming to help them. Exploring this strange new world, the scientists discover they may not be as alone as they first believed . . .
Ben Bova died in November last year, and it was that news that made me really investigate his work. His was a name I’d seen on used bookshelves here and there, and no surprise as he was incredibly prolific, with three figures of books to his name. But he doesn’t seem to have hit the big time in the UK the way he has in the US, so it’s perhaps unsurprising it’s taken me a while to get to him. When I compiled my Heavy Hitters list, his name was up there. After a little investigation, it’s his Grand Tour series that immediately grabbed my attention. With over two dozen books, it’s a mix of smaller series and standalones that create a future history of our solar system and beyond. I decided to start with New Earth, which comes towards the end of the Gran Tour chronologically, but is one of the more standalone offerings. Now that I’ve finished, I have only one question.
Why, why, why, did I wait so long to read Ben Bova?
New Earth is an astonishingly good book, easily my favourite book I’ve read this year. Bova’s career spanned decades, and it shows in his writing. Thematically, it’s a very modern novel, with climate change and overpopulation being major concerns. But in the writing itself, the style is reminiscent of the clear-cut, no nonsense prose I associate with Asimov and the Golden Age. Hard SF has a reputation for being impenetrable and tedious. Bova proves that idea to be a fallacy. I can’t remember the last time I read a book this accessible. The concepts involved are headbenders, but I never felt stupid as I was reading. Bova doesn’t exactly hold your hand, but he takes his time to make sure you understand what’s happening. This is idea-driven science fiction at its very finest, and it plays with tropes I love in new and clever ways.
What really sets New Earth apart from almost every other book I’ve read is the pacing. There’s barely any conflict in this book whatsoever, and even that is limited to a few arguments between colleagues. There’s not a trace of actual, physical violence. It’s not that there’s no threat. Events on Earth and elsewhere are borderline apocalyptic, but it all feels very remote. The main thrust of the novel is incredibly cosy. The closest thing I can compare it to is Star Trek. A group of scientists land on a planet, explore it, discuss science and morality, and then reach an understanding that enriches their lives. It’ so simple, but elegantly so, and I wish there were more books like this out there. It’s unashamedly pro-science and deeply humanist at the same time.
Being part of a larger connected universe, there are a few things here that I’m obviously lacking context for. Interludes flash back to our solar system, and the characters here cross over from other Grand Tour novels. Despite the lack of context, my enjoyment of the book was never reduced. They feel like teasers for a larger universe, rather than detracting from the individual novel. This isn’t a Marvel situation where you need to know all the links, it’s a subtle reminder that there is more at work here than just one team of scientists, and absolutely makes me want to read more.
As an introduction to Ben Boa, I couldn’t have hoped for more from New Earth. If the rest of his work is up to this incredible standard, I may have a new favourite author on my hands.