Ben Bova: successor in the 1970s of the venerably conservative John W. Campbell at the hard SF bastion of Analog magazine, currently a Grand Master of the creaky old SFWA, and six-time winner of a dreaded Hugo Award. He is kryptonite for readers like me. "I didn't know he was still writing," said one friend when I mentioned I was reading Bova's latest short story collection, New Frontiers. "He's still publishing," quipped another, "but whether it's writing . . . " Oh, how we laughed.
Any child of the digital age—and that, dear reader, is all of you reading this—is surely aware of confirmation bias. If they are not, they should be. The tendency of individuals to prefer information that conforms to previously held beliefs and preconceptions is not new: we have for decades read newspapers that lean left or right depending on our preference, and the interpretation as well as the collection of statistics have routinely rendered them lies or, alternatively, damned lies for one, either, both, and all sides in any given debate.
Social networks and instant communication, however, make confirmation bias a perhaps more pressing issue than ever. As we build our own circles and construct our own echo chambers, listening to our friends who feel the same about that hotel on TripAdvisor, or those bloggers who always pick the books we like, it is increasingly possible to assume that everyone thinks like us. Even where we might understand that the other side are out there somewhere, we imagine them to be smaller or more marginalised, crazier and more blinkered, than they really are, parsing countervailing views as minority verdicts or troublesome gadflies. This is Newspeak from below, the sort of self-policing unity dreamed up by Howard Jacobson in his recent J.
In the endless genre wars of science fiction, confirmation bias exhibits as a sort of blissful ignorance. Occasionally this flares up in reactions around the Hugo Awards, with one set of voters apparently unaware that anything new or different has been published in the previous year, and the other utterly furious that a large and passionate readership still orbits around sub-genres they consider obsolete.
I will confess myself a partisan, a committed reader of "literary" science fiction that hits "progressive" buttons. I read more European than American SF, more soft than hard. My prejudice is against the Gernsbackian, and towards the Le Guinian. My presumption is that the world has moved on, that the "exhaustion" of SF that has been of such critical topicality in recent years is a function of a hangover, the persistent idea within the genre that one chap with a good idea can save the world (and get the girl). Ray guns are not the future.
On the other hand, we should all beware Aunt Sallies and straw men. My thin caricature of that science fiction I assume to be backward is deliberately pejorative, designed to confirm my bias. It's healthy for me to assume that it will not stand up to much in the way of sustained scrutiny, and in many cases there is indeed room for the countervailing nuance that might be worth struggling to squeeze into one's philosophy.
For example, Bova himself attracted heat in his early days at Analog for publishing work deemed insufficiently "hard" by the magazine's long-term readers. If that was now some years ago, his Nebula Award was more recent (in 2006 for Titan), and so both his reputation for inflexibility and apparent invisibility within my own echo chamber (I didn't know he was still writing, just seven years after he had won a major award) seem unearned. To continue in the spirit of reaching across aisles: if you're getting shot at by both sides, you're probably doing something right.
So what of New Frontiers? At the risk of appearing to explode the concept of this piece before it has really begun, it is not a collection with the most solid of unifying themes. "Here are fourteen stories about new frontiers of space, time, and the human spirit," Bova writes in his introduction (p. 13), defining his terms so widely as to make them meaningless. For example, one of these stories is a paper-thin bit of fan fiction set in the world of Casablanca, which Bova justifies as being about "the frontier of the mind, the inner questioning that a good story leaves you with: What happened afterward" (p. 145). Perhaps the Campbellians were right when they called him woolly.
Indeed, few ideas in this collection will strike a regular reader of science fiction as new. There's a generation starship with an errant AI, there is life on Mars, and there are time travellers sent back in time to prevent horrific futures. Bova even recycles his own ideas: two stories here focus on virtual reality duelling. In "Duel in the Somme," two men fight each other in a World War I flight simulator in order to decide which one can get the girl (no, really); in "Bloodless Victory," "Four lawyers sat huddled around a table in the Men's Bar of the Carleton Club" discuss the legal niceties of this sort of conflict resolution (p. 237).
It is characteristic of Bova that "Bloodless Victory" begins with that sentence: pithy and pointed, his stories often read like extended, and fairly unfunny, jokes. "Mars Farts" begins by signalling Bova’s self-awareness of this tic—"A Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim are stuck in the middle of Mars," says the Catholic member of a stranded Martian expedition to the Jew and the Muslim—whilst another, "Scherezade and the Storyteller", simply embraces the joke format entirely ("The storytellers are all based on fellow writers of science fiction, their names thinly disguised by pseudo-Arabic monikers," snickers Bova [p. 217]). This is also a story which robs the heroine of the Arabian Nights of her talent, but allows her to retain her "beauty." This unthinking imbalance between the genders is mirrored in the duellists of the virtual Somme, or in Ignatiev, the ageing astrophysicist of "A Country for Old Men," who becomes jealous when a younger colleague on a generation starship attracts the attentions of a woman he considers "unlovely [ . . . but with] a charm to her, a gamine-like wide-eyed innocence that beguiled Ignatiev's crusty old heart" (p. 49).
So far, so bias-confirmatory. Diversity is not Bova’s strong suit, although in his defence he does often attempt, for example, to paint a sort of under-informed multicultural future. It feels overly forgiving to note that Bova is 82, that in a long career he has earned the respect he attracts from some quarters, or that only one of these stories is new to the collection (that Casablanca one): the oldest was first published in 1984, the most recent in 2012. These are excuses more than they are issues of critical relevance; if the AI of "A Country for Old Men" is described as "still a computer program, limited to the data and instructions fed into it" (p. 72), or "the first world we've found that could become earth like in a few billion years" is, in "A Pale Blue Dot," discovered by the teenage son of a square-jawed inventor type (p. 285), it is only marginally useful to forgive the fiction as "merely" old-fashioned or outdated. If sometimes it is well-meaning, it never rings the changes with much energy ("More than four billion people, the secretary general thought, yet not one woman has been granted a place on your committee" [p. 123]—smash the system, dude!). Tor is publishing this stuff as current science fiction (albeit without first publication dates). We must read it—and critique it—as such.
That means we might be justified in calling Bova’s fiction naïve or cosy, and in suggesting that many of the concepts which drive his stories are now primarily of interest to fans of this particular stripe of science fiction, rather than to any reader who might wish their literature to pretend to a broader relevance. Bova’s prose, bald and wide-eyed, doesn’t help add subtlety or grit to his stories, either. A typical passage will set out simple psychologies and place them in a Panglossian context, or present pat denouements through improbably utilitarian dialogue:
My head’s spinning. They’re saying that I can stay here on the Moon, and even do important work, valuable work.
Zeke claps me on the shoulder. "You done good, turtle guy. "
"By breaking the rules and getting disqualified," I mutter, kind of stunned by it all. ("Moon Race", p. 201)
This is lifeless stuff, the kind of science fiction style whose only worth is in not getting in the way of a story’s ideas. Where those ideas are received (here, a sort of lunar pod-race in which bending the rules results in—Eureka!—technological break-through), the transparent style is simply see-through. There’s not a lot of artistry or activism in Bova’s fiction, is what I’m trying to say.
And yet. I went into this review in an attempt to understand a writer rather than to exercise a grudge, and in a few stories in this collection I found elements to be admired. Take "The Question": it is, as we’ve already concluded about much of this collection, stolid and traditional, a first contact story in which an alien vessel arrives in our solar system and humanity must cobble together a sort of unity in order to respond. It includes schematic dialogue, sophomoric psychologies, and rather straightforward exposition. But there’s something in Bova’s characteristic ingénue pose that offers the story something oddly reminiscent of Vonnegut: a child-like, pared-down wryness that allows a big concept to be brought down to a human level ("How can I ace the SATs? That’s what I’d ask." [p. 138]), and prevents any of its scenarios from feeling like an attempt to totalise a world.
This is valuable, even essential for a literature of ideas: the ability to relate a concept to a scenario without reducing the idea to a single iteration. A lot of hard SF fails to do this—and a lot of literary SF does, too. What Bova can do, even when it opens him up to accusations of flippancy or simplicity, of didacticism or paternalism, is site an SFnal idea in an everyday context. He does it, too, in "In Trust," a story about that hoary old business of cryogenic suspension, in which the unlikely trustee of all frozen bodies is the Roman Catholic Church. Bova cocks a snook at the curia and cryogenics all at once in one of the collection’s most memorable endings:
“You’re freezing me so you can keep all my money! You’re keeping all the others frozen so you can keep their money, too!”
“It’s for their own good,” said Pope Michael. He nodded to the guards, who stepped onto the balcony and took Jason in their grasp.
“Holy Mother Church has lasted more than two thousand years, Jace. But what’s a millennium or two when you’re waiting for the final trump?” (p. 112)
No one, you hope, is going to mistake this for subtlety, for theological sophistication, or for a viable future scenario for suspended animation or the Holy See. But "In Trust" has a point to make, a little twist on a received idea, and it delivers these quickly and without fanfare—and with a twinkling eye for human-sized problems. Even the collection’s best (and, perhaps tellingly, oldest) story, "The Last Decision"—which is set in a space opera future and features the Emperor of the Hundred Worlds from Gordon Dickson’s "Call Him Lord"—has at its heart the relationships between father and son, or husband and wife. In this way, Bova’s plain-man pose seeks to democratise high ideas and the republic of letters. "The hierarchy," one of his characters in "The Last Decision" sneers. "The old men who pretend to be young and refuse to admit any new ideas into the scientific community" (p. 323). Bova imagines himself against these men, and if his fiction hasn’t truly moved with the times, it is sufficiently humble not to insist upon itself over-much.
Indeed, Bova makes for a gloomy Pollyanna in the course of New Frontiers. In the stories and Bova’s editorial notes alike, there are a lot of old men pottering around feeling useless, and old friends who have left their loved ones alone. Maybe they simply sound tired, but I came to think that these stories delivered their optimism with a sort of sigh.
In one sense, even where it is acknowledging its own obsolescence, it’s comforting to have this sort of science fiction still around, when more contemporary writers seem uniformly pessimistic about the future (doesn’t every consensus need a challenge?); in another, an old-fashioned faith in progress reduces Bova to a sort of fantasist with space rockets: how, precisely, does he imagine humanity will get from our current position to building a golf course on the moon (in "Sam Below Par")? He never says, and this goes some way to confirming every bias I have about this sort of SF: that it’s frictionless, unengaged, almost wilfully old-fashioned. But you know what it isn’t? Triumphalist, self-regarding, or smug. Is it great literature? No. Exciting science fiction? Not often. Men like Bova need to make space for other voices, of course; but New Frontiers is not a collection which suggests he is against doing so, or is unaware of the necessity of making room.
We all have something to learn from this. Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on our poor old Aunt Sally, after all.
Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.