I have always been rather a fan of Ben Bova’s novels and have read many of them, especially all of his ‘Grand Tour’ series, in which he visits all of the planets in our Solar System and many of the moons and asteroids (on almost all of which life of some sort is found). ‘New Earth’ takes place in the same universe and a few of the characters met in previous books make a brief appearance eg Pancho Lane and Douglas Stavanger. Most of those novels are fast-moving, with a lot happening all over the system. This one is different.
When it opens the first starship, Gaia, is on its way to a planet which has been discovered telescopically in orbit about Sirius. Its crew of twelve men and women travel in cryogenic suspension and wake to find that the follow-up mission they were promised has been cancelled by the World Council. The mission had been sent, despite the fact that Earth is suffering under the second ‘greenhouse flood’, huge areas being under water and millions dying, so it was seen as a last desperate bid for survival. Now it seems that all resources have been diverted to combat the floods.
The planet appears to be amazingly earth-like, with continents, oceans, clouds, vegetation and, hopefully, breathable air. When they arrive there are no signs of intelligent life, until a single spot of light is seen on its night side. One might think that, with the optical instruments available by then, they would be able to zoom in and see more, but for some reason they have to drop a minisat into orbit, analyse the light – it’s a laser – and then send a couple of automated rovers down to investigate. These get quite close to the source of the light and then the screens showing what they are transmitting go blank. Nothing can get them working again and they appear to be dead. So there is no option but for some of the crew to go down in person in one of their three rocketplanes, landing on a convenient grassy area among forest.
Now this is where it starts to get really strange! New Earth turns out to be beautiful. “Like a park,” says Brandon, younger brother of Jordan, their leader. Butterflies flit amongst the trees, a squirrel-like animal climbs a tree, a flock of brightly-coloured birds swoops past. They find the rovers, which have been inexplicably shut down and their reactors cold. Then Brandon sees a man, in a long bluish robe. To everyone’s horror he takes off his helmet, but appears to be unharmed, breathing normally. The ‘man’ appears and in perfect English introduces himself as Adri. The crew meet other inhabitants, all of whom are totally human, friendly and eager to answer questions, though it turns out that this is all they will do, they will not volunteer information.
Now we’ve all watched ‘Star Trek’ and know that all over the universe there are humans just like us, apart perhaps for pointy ears or corrugated brows. Why, Captain Kirk can even snog some of them! But we also know (ask Dr. Jack Cohen) that in reality, ‘parallel evolution’ is almost certainly impossible and that if we do ever find intelligent life it is most unlikely to look anything like humans. Imagine the consternation among the crew then, to find that the people here are exactly like us. Later, their DNA is examined and confirms this even at that level. Some of the scientists refuse to believe any of the ‘evidence’, claiming that their minds are being manipulated. Much of the rest of the book is about the responses of crew members, who react with fear, even xenophobia, or more moderately with skepticism and doubt or find that the fascination of learning new science and technology overrides those more primitive reactions. Jordan even becomes emotionally involved with one of the women, Aditi, whom he learns to trust but has difficulty in convincing other crew members, who claim that his emotion clouds his judgement and even stage a revolt against his leadership.
The aliens live in a city, but it is the only one on the planet and contains only thousands of people and no children. It had been screened from being observed previously by an energy field, the secret of which our scientists are naturally keen to discover and, again, the aliens seem happy to answer all questions…
This book has 384 pages and I feel that it might have benefited from some pruning. Very little actually happens. Gradually, because of the aliens’ policy of not volunteering information, the crew peel away the layers to discover more about this unlikely planet and its inhabitants. Bit by bit, they discover the real reason why Earth has been observed for centuries. Why no attempt at contact has been made previously and what lies in the future if no action is taken. Action which is bound to lead to great opposition back on Earth, eight years away even at the speed of light, eighty by starship. So the story is basically character-led. There is a lot of talking, a lot of information is imparted, but there is very little real action. Bova obviously uses his book as a vehicle for some ecological preaching about what we are actually doing to our planet today and what the result will be if we continue on our present path, all of which is perfectly true and commendable. I assume there will be a further addition to this series.
For me, this isn’t Bova’s best book and it’s not for readers who like lots of action and adventure, but it is thought-provoking and intelligent, so worth considering.
David A. Hardy
(pub: TOR/Forge. 384 page small hardback. Price: $24.99 (US), $28.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3018-5)