Monday, April 04, 2011

Half a thumb up

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, jupiter, political drama

A few years ago (before I began this blog) Ben Bova released Jupiter, a space science tale about finding big (mountain-size) creatures slubbing around in Jupiter's planet-spanning ocean. There was a hint that they may be intelligent (i.e. able to communicate), which left an open path to a sequel. The sequel has arrived: Leviathans of Jupiter.

The book is big, 477 pages, and large parts of it are full of overdrawn political intrigue that simply bores me, so I read the first and last hundred pages. The primary good idea here is that the big Jovians communicate by sight. They are like deep-sea squid, with light organs that function like a display screen so they can communicate with pictures. I recall a story set on Earth in which giant squid can make intelligible pictures in a similar manner. I don't know if Bova got the idea from that…or even perhaps he wrote that one, also!

The plot boils down to a group of scientists proving that these "Leviathans" are intelligent enough to communicate with humans sent among them in a giant submersible that has multiple hulls so it can survive to depths exceeding a thousand kilometers under a gravity of about 2.5 G's. The humans attempt communication with a kind of brain probe, but this fails. Instead, the light display method turns out to work best.

There is, of course, a villain, a ruthless woman who believes the lead scientist at the Jupiter research station is competing with her for presidency of the International Astronautical Authority. She is prepared to destroy him and his program, and kill a few people along the way, to meet this perceived threat.

I have experienced growing unease these past ten or twenty years with the poor quality of the political conflicts in Sci-Fi in general. It seems there has to be a villain who is totally and irredeemably bad. It took me many years to understand that most of civilization is an attempt to manage the conflict that naturally arises because everyone, meaning everyone, is partly right and partly wrong, always. Most political conflict is between people who mean well but have different priorities, well leavened with the law of unintended consequences. As Bobby Burns wrote, "The best-laid plans o' mice and men gang oft agley." (gang agley being Erse for "jump the tracks").

I suppose Sci-Fi writers like black-and-white stories better than shades-of-gray. Too few realize the rainbow of "mostly good" sociological attitudes that must be accommodated to make any workable compromise. But who can blame only the authors? It is what most readers also prefer. In my experience, most of those who enjoy Sci-Fi, myself included, are more comfortable with machines (predictable mechanisms) than with people (messy and unpredictable). So we want our heroes to be wholly, even painfully, good and our villains to be completely evil. But I write "our" as a partial distruth, for I am no longer satisfied with such polarization. I've always likes stories better when people were pitted, not against an evil adversary, but against an uncaring Universe, and needed better knowledge and better engineering to overcome its obstacles. And those few stories in which people of different viewpoints had to collaborate to "work it out" are most satisfying.

In Leviathans of Jupiter, the story of overcoming the extreme pressures of the deep Jovian ocean, and the alien mind-set of its denizens, held plenty of interest for me. Not only do I not need the villain, I found her distracting. She was too evil to be plausible, and too easily overcome to be worth the reading, which is why I skipped more than half the book.

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