Neptune (Outer Planets Trilogy book 2) by Ben Bova (book review)

September 16, 2021 | By | Reply More

‘Neptune’ is an unusual book in several ways. One is that it is divided into ‘chapters’ of only one to four pages and each ‘chapter’ commences with a few lines in a strange, bold typeface in which upper- and lower-case letters are the same size. This does not make for easy reading but, fortunately, these lines are short.

It is volume 2 of ‘The Outer Planets’ series of novels. It is probably Ben Bova’s last book, since sadly he died last year (2020). The previous volume is therefore ‘Uranus’, which I haven’t read, but I would have expected Jupiter and Saturn to come first. Uranus is mentioned several times in this book, as both planets seem to have been involved in a series of catastrophes which do not appear to have been natural.

The book is set in a far-future in which humans have visited and even colonised all the planets and moons once the province only of automated probes and robot landers and rovers. Hungarian multi-millionaire Baron Miklos Magyr has visited Neptune, but is feared to have died at the bottom of its deep, dark ocean, which is covered by a thick layer of ice. His daughter, Baroness Ilona, hopes to find him still alive, which becomes an obsession, but otherwise will bring back his body, along with his discoveries. So she commissions an expedition there. In this quest, she is to be accompanied and aided by the fearless explorer Captain Derek Humbolt and joined on the spaceship Hári János by planetary scientist Jan Meitner, who it turns out has fallen in love with Ilona. The handsome and rakish Humbolt clearly also has a great romantic interest in Ilona, making for an interesting voyage!

The Hári János has the same design as the ship in which her father died on Neptune and here I feel that I cannot refrain from discussing the jacket illustration of this book, which is by the fine British SF artist John Harris. But it seems clear that John could not have been given a copy of the book or even a relevant extract from which to work (why would any publisher not do that?), since the Hári János is clearly described as a gleaming sphere as one would expect for a vehicle which is to be subjected to the immense pressures of a deep ocean on a giant planet. But the jacket shows a flat, manta-ray-type craft with a complex superstructure, more like a battle-cruiser from ‘Star Wars’. While the planet is blue, correct for Neptune, though rather dark and with no details, and we can see a thin white line indicating an edge-on ring, it is illuminated from above a pole, not its equator like most planets. In other words, this is more like ‘Uranus’, which looks as if it has been knocked on its side. This becomes significant to the story later. The moon in the foreground could indeed be the giant Triton, but in the dark blue of space above-left is a bright disc, too big to be the Sun at this distance and anyway that could not be illuminating the phase of Neptune that we see here. So what is it?

But back to the story. The journey is well described and they make it through the ice-layer, through the dense ocean and have various exciting adventures with the weird and alien lifeforms of Neptune, analogous to terrestrial fish, jellyfish and squid but also flat creatures which seem attracted to the ship, wrap themselves over it and with their suckers leach minerals from its surface. I don’t want to give away too much about what they find on the surface, because this could constitute rather a ‘spoiler’ for the surprises to come. Suffice it to say that they do find the wreck of Ilona’s father’s spaceship, with him inside, though not alive. More mysteriously, there are other ruins and bits of another crashed ship which is not of terrestrial origin. The crew pick up some of these with robot arms to take back to Earth.

So it would seem that aliens have visited our Solar System, perhaps two million years ago. They may have been responsible for Uranus’s strange tilt and other atrocities there and on Earth, millennia ago, possibly creating an Ice Age to delay or prevent humans’ development of civilisation and technology? If released these discoveries would, of course, cause great consternation on Earth. Who were these aliens? What did they want? Will they come back?

Another expedition is planned in short order, in which Ilona is again joined by Humbolt, Meitner and a representative of the Interplanetary Council, since many on Earth do not believe in the findings announced by the first expedition, which they claim are faked. This new member of the crew turns out to be a small, black scientist named Dr. Francine Savoy. Her presence creates a new dynamic aboard the Hári János. For one thing, she and Jan Meitner fall for each other as Ilona having spurned his interest and move in together for the remainder of the voyage.

After many more adventures with the denizens of Neptune’s ocean, they return to Earth, though not without problems such as not having enough power to leave the icy surface and a rescue mission having to be sent from Earth. But when they get back, they find that their return is shrouded in secrecy, to avoid causing panic and riots among the public when they learn of the aliens who must still be out there and may return at any time. While the astronomers are trying to make up their minds, the four crew are effectively imprisoned, held incommunicado. Eventually, it is decided to hold a full Council meeting, which will be held at Ilona’s castle at Budaörs.

I can recommend this book to all lovers of good, ‘hard’ Science Fiction. So I leave you to find out how it all ends.

David A. Hardy


September 2021

(pub: TOR, 2021. 233 page hardback. Price: $28.99 (US), $38.99 (CAN), £20.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25029-662-7)

check out website: www.tor.com

Category: Books, Scifi

About the Author ()

David A. Hardy, FBIS, FIAAA is the longest-established living space artist in the West, being first published in 1952. From working almost exclusively in water colours and gouache he has gone on to embrace acrylics, oils, pastels and, since 1991, digital art on a Mac. For more art, including prints of this and other works, visit http://www.astroart.org, where you can find many links, tutorials, books and prints and originals for sale. Dave is Vice President of the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists (ASFA) and European VP of the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA), and has an asteroid named after him! His SF novel 'Aurora' is now available in a revised and updated edition on Amazon etc. See a review of this and an interview with Pauline Morgan (November 2012) here: http://sfcrowsnest.info/?s=hardy

Leave a Reply