Ben Bova's Jupiter: and the Truth Shall Set You Free

Reviewed by John Teehan

"We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo . . . have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, . . . and, consequently, that you have incurred all the censures and penalties enjoined and promulgated in the sacred canons and other general and particular constituents against delinquents of this description." --Sentence of the Tribunal of the Supreme Inquisition against Galileo Galilei, given the 22nd day of June of the year 1633

Jupiter cover

Who says science and religion can't mix? Apparently a lot of people do -- scientists and fundamentalists alike -- and that seems to be the thesis of Ben Bova's latest novel, Jupiter. Set a hundred years or so after his other "grand tour" novels -- Mars, Return to Mars, and Venus -- Bova introduces us to a society somewhat reminiscent of Heinlein's theocracy in Revolt in 2100. In Jupiter, Earth society is dominated by a selection of religious theocracies spread across the globe. Most prevalent is the New Morality, a Christian fundamentalist movement, that shares power with similar Muslim and Buddhist movements. Citizens are required to surrender a few years of their lives in Service to the New Morality, and scientists are viewed with deep suspicion -- especially those whose sciences may challenge or contradict Scripture. Evolution becomes a dirty word.

Conscripted by the New Morality is our reluctant hero Grant Archer, a graduate student studying the nature of black holes. (N.B., not the evolution of black holes. Merely the nature of them.) Due to political powers beyond his ken, instead of being sent to the deep space observatories on the moon, Archer is exiled from his new bride to spend his Service obligation on Gold Station orbiting Jupiter. He is ordered by the New Morality to spy on the station's crew to discover the truth about recent rumors of secret manned missions being sent into the Jovian atmosphere. Once there, Archer slowly learns about the mysterious goings-on around the station and the purpose of the enigmatic vessel tethered alongside. While other scientists perform the official studies of Jupiter's satellites, Archer is assigned by the fearsome Director Wo to the less-than-official team tasked with studying the planet itself.

Grant Archer is a Believer. The son of a Methodist minister and a regular church-goer, he is also a dedicated scientist; he is a rare fellow in his society in that he is faithful to his religion and at the same time keeps to the ideals of science. Until his arrival at Gold Station, Archer has managed to live with this contradiction with little trouble. Suddenly he's caught between the two opposed imperatives -- his obligation to spy for the New Morality and his commitment as a scientist to extend humankind's knowledge of the universe. The conflict drives the character development forward as Archer struggles to regain his earlier balance. Finally, the actions of the New Morality and the revelations on Jupiter tip the balance, forcing Archer to look within himself and make a decision.

At first, Archer has plenty of opportunities to agonize about his situation as he deals with various mundane assignments and gets to know his fellow scientists. We feel sympathy for Archer, whose careful plans for the future are turned on their heads as this budding astrophysicist is sent to clean beakers, study weather patterns, and babysit a semi-intelligent gorilla named Sheena. (This novel will strike a chord with anyone working in the science field or who has spent years suffering as a "grad-student grunt" performing tedious tasks while struggling for a doctorate.) His fellow team members bring a varied mix of attitudes and experience to Gold Station. Ben Muzorawa, a Sudanese specialist in fluid dynamics from the University of Cairo, takes Archer under his wing and gets him a place on the planetary exploration team. Biochemist Egon Kharlstad is the team's sad-sack trickster who's on Gold Station not by choice but to avoid serving a prison sentence for skirting Earth's reproduction control laws. Tamiko Hideshi is a physical chemist primarily studying Europa's oceans. Lanie O'Hara, first met doubling as both scientist and station security chief, spends much of her time in a skin-tight suit swimming with a pair of communicative dolphins.

Settings involving space research stations tend to lead to stories about forced close interaction among their crews. Gold Station, however, reflects its neighbor, Jupiter, in that it's much larger than one would expect. This contrasts well with the atmospheric ship used later in the book. The characters deal both with isolation in open areas and more intimate interaction within a very claustrophobic setting. In each setting, the character interactions shift from friendly, to suspicious, to cooperative to . . . ? Bova's characters are three-dimensional enough that they definitely bump elbows with each other. This is particularly true with Archer. Soon, however, events overtake him, and Archer finds himself less in a position to report the goings-on at Gold Station, and more in the center of all the action.

And we're talking a lot of action.

The adventure grips you through the last third of the novel and doesn't let go until the very end. Jupiter is a good example of a novel that can be both entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. Bova does a very credible job in presenting the violence of the Jovian atmosphere. It's an exaggerated landscape for exaggerated scenes that become somewhat reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure. More than the ray-guns and rocket ships of space operas, Jupiter, as a novel, demonstrates some of the very real dangers in exploring the outer planets. The presence of the Leviathans adds to the increasing drama of the Jovian scenes, ending with an encounter that pays off well and will have you cheering.

The end, while satisfactory, does have its sobering moments as Bova inserts a sense of political realism. This doesn't take anything away from the narrative. More, it reaffirms the thesis of the novel and strengthens it.

Bova, a six-time Hugo winner and past editor of Analog magazine, has a tendency to insert a social agenda into his "grand tour" novels. Mars dealt with political and racial tensions, Return to Mars covered the pros and cons of commercialism, and Venus presented a near-future of the Green movement and economic class distinctions. For the most part, the social aspects work within the novels fairly seamlessly. The tradition continues in Jupiter with the religion-versus-science conflict. There is no question that the villains of the novel are supposed to be the zealots of the New Morality. Zealotry in the name of preserving the New Morality is an honored function in Bova's post-modern society. The readers are supposed to see the scientists as the heroes -- as visionaries with the courage and strength to challenge the political hypocrisy of the New Morality and restore the honor of seeking the truth about God's universe. In Jupiter, however, the real heroes are people like Archer who maintain both the spirit of scientific inquiry and the integrity of their beliefs.

So is there life beneath Jupiter's cloudy cover? Readers of Bova's earlier works will suspect so. After all, since those novels reveal evidence of intelligent life in Mars's ancient past, life on the chaotic surface of Venus, bacterial life on Europa, and "Clarke's Medusae" floating in the upper clouds of Jupiter -- Bova's rendition of our solar system is practically teeming with life-as-we-recognize-it -- it would be no surprise to find life deeper down in the gas giant.

But what of intelligent life?

That is the crux of the drama. The discovery of intelligent life deeper within Jupiter's atmosphere would threaten the validity of Scripture, or so the New Morality would have you believe. Fortunately Bova doesn't go on a rampage against religion, but he seems certainly critical of religious fanaticism. The argument is made that life on other worlds, even intelligent life, reflects more the complex beauty of God's creation as opposed to its utter denial. Archer, however, doesn't have Bova's distance; and must come to terms with both Scripture and Science.

Much of the scientific quest involves discovering the nature of the mysterious beings floating deep below Jupiter's cloud cover, the Leviathans. With the manned probe treated as a submarine, the Leviathans as Jovian whales, and the crippled but driven Director Wo as an Ahab, the adventure takes on a Moby Dick feel, but with a better ending.

As an added bonus in Jupiter, life below the clouds is as richly described and handled as anything done by Hal Clement at his best. To add further dimension, Bova shifts the narrative to other points of view, so it's not just Archer's eyes we see through, but other eyes as well. By doing this, Bova allows the reader a range of perspectives that rounds out the sense of immediacy bought about during the trip under the clouds.

This is pure Bova. His writing style remains smooth and seamless throughout the entire novel with no words wasted on throw-away scenes. Bova doesn't simply write, he crafts.

If there is any real criticism of Jupiter, it's that Bova's characters couldn't keep a secret if their lives depended on it. Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, the real story of Director Wo's mission dribbles out through various characters sharing secrets with Archer along with the added statement, "I really shouldn't be telling you this. Security, you know." It's an obvious plot device meant to reveal the motivations of other characters. His past novels do a better job of revealing information crucial to the plot. Still, even with the information provided by the secondary characters, Bova keeps enough hidden to guarantee some surprising revelations.

Overall, Jupiter reads wonderfully. It's hard science fiction with a good extrapolation of the nature of interplanetary exploration and a continuation of his theme that the advance of science and exploration requires the willingness to take great risks. The novel also examines the dialectic between science and religion, showing how they both develop in the light of the other's fire. In this day of advancing genetic studies and the probing of the universe, Bova's latest book is timely and relevant. Science and religion can co-exist. Perhaps they have to.

"There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it." --Dudley Field Malone on the fifth day of the Scopes Monkey Trial

Postscript: Ben Bova has arranged for three more "Grand Tour" novels to come out from Tor Books. Further information can be had at his official Web site.

 

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John Teehan is a member of the Critters Workshop and founded RI_Fantastic, an online group for genre writers in southern New England. He makes a living as a typesetter/graphic designer, but claims the naked soul of a writer. Right now, at this very moment, he's hard at work writing. Quiet, please. (Though you probably won't disturb him if you visit his Web site.)