Uranus (Outer Planets Trilogy book 1) by Ben Bova (book review).

‘Uranus’ by Ben Bova is the first novel in the ‘Outer Planets Trilogy’.

Uranus is the seventh planet in our Solar System but, unlike the other gas giants, its ocean has been sterilised of life. It becomes a backwater where nobody wanted to go ‘until the self-styled Reverend Kyle Umber conceived his plan of building a haven for Earth’s poor, disenfranchised, forgotten men and women.

Evan Waxman is the billionaire who has been persuaded by Kyle Umber to finance and run the ring habitat, Haven, and is the process of building a second ring, appropriately named Haven II.

Raven Marchesi, an orphan of Naples who had to become a whore to survive, arrives in anticipation of a new good life. At first, it lives up to the promise, clean quarters to call her own, has time to study for a job and, above all, she no longer has to be a prostitute. But she wants to be where the power is because that is what saved her life in Naples and that means being by Evan Waxman’s side. The first step is to study hard.

She does so well that she is given a special job of being a guide for the first few days to Tómas Gomez, an astronomer who is coming to study the planet. They end up working so closely together that he comes to rely on her keeping his project of sending a submersible to the bottom of Uranus’ ocean to schedule. He also falls hopelessly in love with her.

But she sees her work as a means to getting a step closer to Waxman and succeeds to become his personal assistant and one of the many women he sleeps with. For her, it is a price worth paying as she is close to the power. Then she finds out what is really financing the Haven, drug manufacturing which is legal on Haven and sold back to Earth. She tries to back out of her relationship with Waxman, but is caught like a fly in a spider’s web.

It turns out Reverend Kyle Umber knew about the drugs and wants out. He asks for and gets Raven’s help. Only things go badly wrong. Raven is caught in 3-way pull, love, power and idealism. There is no way out.

Then Tómas discovers the submersible has brought up a piece of manufactured steel from the ocean floor, which could not have come any of spacecraft sent by humans, which gets the Earth powers to extend their long claws to take an interest in Haven. Complications of all sorts inevitably follow.

This novel has all the ingredients of a soap opera in a rehabilitation centre. It has a good storyline that flows at pace. It should have the tension, be a page-turner and give the reader a sense of awe and wonder, yet it comes across as cheesy and lightweight.

Part of the problem is the short chapters. There are 79 chapters over 307 e-pages, less than an average of four e-pages per chapter. Worse some chapters are split into sections that are told from different points of view. It feels more like viewing snapshots in a photo album than watching a film.

Another part of the problem is large number of viewpoint characters. The reader has to rapidly switch mindsets from one page to the next. Too many of the viewpoint characters end up being 2-dimensional and, with the exception of Raven, the few that end up being nuanced do not have enough book-space to be fully rounded. This only adds to the snapshot effect.

However, the real issue is that a lot of the plot and sub-plot lines are cliché and therefore predictable, even if they have a new wrapper around them of being situated around Uranus with its mysterious alien artefact.

The human engineering and technology is, as you would expect, standard and well-grounded, except there are places where it does not take the latest developments of today’s technology, even taking into account the time lag due to writing and publishing the novel. Take, for instance, the security team not being able to identify the assailants of the attack on Tómas because they kept their faces hidden from the space station’s cameras. That is fair enough but what about the apps that can identify people from the way they walk or how about eliminating those people on other cameras at the time of the attack to reduce the ‘more than 4,000 people’ to a manageable number for further investigation?

Turning now to Uranus, I thought this novel showed promise when author Ben Bova placed all his facts about Uranus in a short second chapter entitled ‘Data Bank’, which also gave a little bit about the history of Haven. You can read or pass it over as you wish. However, no mention is made of the Uranian moons, which could possibly harbour life, especially as one of them, Miranda, has shown signs of significant cryo-volcanism in the past. The novel goes onto to conclude that Uranus had a collision with a massive object to tilt it onto its side, not billions of years ago as scientists currently believe, but only 200 million years ago. What I would like to know is how the planet managed to gather eight moons in that time that are more or less aligned to the solar plane? These are the kind of details that would have been explained in a modern Science Fiction novel purporting to be somewhat realistic or, putting it another way, Uranus lacks the comprehensive world-building that has become the signature of a good Science Fiction novel these days.

To summarise, this novel would have been a good plot-driven space opera novel of the Solar System kind if were published, say, fifteen years ago. But now it feels passé and not earning its place in the forward-thinking Science Fiction canon. Enjoyable if you like that sort of thing and a fun read.

Rosie Oliver

May 2020

(pub: TOR, 2020. 384 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), £22.27 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-25029-654-2)

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