Titan by Ben Bova
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
10 September 2007
A familiar conceit from time travel SF is the moment of flabbergasted retro-wisdom. When 1980s Marty McFly tells 1950s Doc that his President of the USA is Ronald Reagan, Doc's boggled response ("Ronald Reagan? The movie actor?") beds in the difference in their respective perspectives as well as wryly suggesting that, you know, it's funny how things work out. In the recent BBC series Life on Mars noughties copper Sam Tyler warns a hard-drinking 1970s policeman that a third of senior police officers will be alcoholics by the time Margaret Thatcher becomes P.M. His interlocutor replies: "I'll need something a lot stronger than booze if she ever becomes Prime Minister."
Let's play our own small version of this game. Let's go back a couple of months and point an innocent-eyed SF fan at the shortlist for the 2006 John Campbell Memorial Award. That's a strong list. The best of its titles is probably the masterful Nova Swing by M. John Harrison, but the competition is fierce, from James Morrow's smart, engaging, and wonderful The Last Witchfinder to Justina Robson's ambitious and stimulating Living Next-Door to the God of Love, perhaps her best novel; from Charles Stross's problematic but characteristically efferverscent and thought-provoking Glasshouse to Vernor Vinge's splendid, satisfyingly complex Rainbows End. Even the weaker books on the list have much to recommend them: the nifty and original worldbuilding of Karl Shroeder's Sun of Suns compensates for so-so characterisation and narrative; Edelman's Infoquake, though patchy, hits the button brilliantly when it's on song. I've read eight of the thirteen shortlisted titles, and of the eight Bova's Titan was the weakest by a country mile. By a country parsec, in fact. So, wait til I tell you who actually won the award ...
Titan is one of the blandest pieces of fiction I have come across in three decades of reading novels. If the Campbell shortlist is a high-class curry restaurant of delicious, spicy, and stimulating food, then Titan is a single slice of white bread and margarine on a white plate under the neon light of a truck drivers' café. It's a fairly thick slice (502 pages in the paperback), but that only increases the sense of stodge. If I had not been reviewing it, and had been instead captain of my own fate and master of my destiny, I'd have put it down at around page 200 and not picked it up again. As it was I plugged dutifully on to its anticlimactic ending. It's a book that cries out for the response: meh.
The story picks up from Bova's previous wedge, Saturn (2003), in which ten thousand exiles, renegades, and other folk unwanted by the religious-fundamentalist governments of Earth are sent into space aboard an enormous space habitat called Goddard. It's a cylindrical Babylon 5-type place, this, spun to create artificial gravity and luxuriously landscaped on the inside with spacious and beautiful parks, fields, lakes, and towns. Heaven only knows what such a place would cost to build in the post-environmental-collapse world of Bova's hundred-years-hence, but there you go. Anyhow, in Saturn there's a revolution aboard the Goddard and the dubious Malcolm Eberly gets elected President. In Titan Goddard arrives in Saturn orbit and sends a lumbering probe down to the surface of Saturn's moon. The probe refuses to upload its data to Goddard. The habitat experiences a series of minor malfunctions that slightly affect certain things, like the orientation of its solar array. There's a presidential election, in which the incumbent promises that everybody will get rich mining Saturn's rings for water, and his opponent promises to repeal the "zero growth protocol" that prevents people having babies. One of the two candidates wins the election. The data gets uploaded. The minor malfunctions get sorted. That's your lot; there is no more. 500 pages.
It's hard to overstate, indeed, how underplotted the novel is. The minor malfunctions in the habitat put nobody in immediate peril. The lumbering probe trundles about a Wikipedia entry on Titan. It turns out (if you'll forgive me a spoiler) that it's blocking its own upload protocol because it's been programmed not to contaminate Titan's surface, and it thinks that uploading its data will result in more probes, and concomitant contamination, coming to the surface. This revelation is, after half a thousand pages, a big narrative disappointment. Moreover it makes no sense—if the probe is intelligent enough to think through the implications of uploading its data (they'll send more probes!), then it's surely intelligent enough to think through the implications of not uploading, since that inevitably leads to the habitat sending down not only more probes but (much more contaminating) actual people to figure out what has gone wrong. And an actual person is indeed sent down to fix the malfunction. He does this by promising the probe that no further probes or people will be sent to Titan if it uploads its data. The astronaut then rashly radios base to inform them that he has just lied to the probe. The probe overhears this and shoots him in the arm with its scientific laser—but uploads its data anyway. It makes no sense.
Back on Goddard the election campaign is fought on the gender-essentialist basis that all women want to have babies and that most men want to stop them; a, shall we say, curious perspective on homo sapiens sapiens. The plan to mine the rings of Saturn is stymied on the grounds that there are alien microbes living there. Think how many trillions of tonnes of water there are in the rings; and how tiny a dent human mining could make—it's rather as if all oceanic fishing were halted because of the effect on the plankton. But there you go. Then a narrative rabbit is pulled out of one of the presidential candidate's hats, when she reveals that there's no need to mine the rings for water after all, because comets are made of water, and several of them come quite near to Saturn! This information is greeted with delighted amazement by the occupants of Goddard, as if it has literally only just occurred to them. Try to imagine a population of ten thousand space colonists and scientists setting off towards Saturn with so rudimentary a knowledge of the solar system.
I've read a fair few of the "Grand Tour" novels now, and I have come to the conclusion that Ben Bova is a bad writer. His prose is flaccid, repetitive, and full of cliché. When he is writing exposition he's very dull. When he's writing descriptively he permits no noun to go naked before the reader without slapping on one or more adjectives; and he allows no verb to shed its adverb (from the first page: "the thick listless wind slithered like an oily beast slowly awakening from a troubled sleep, moaning, lumbering across the frozen land"; from the last: "On Titan's cold and murky surface Titan Alpha trundled across the spongy mats of dark carbonaceous soil"). Bova perhaps thinks this renders his prose more vivid and immediate, but it has exactly the opposite effect, making it sticky and overegged. Any student who has taken a Creative Writing 101 class, and had their tutor blue-pencil their overcompensating profusion of descriptors, knows better than Bova how to write evocative prose. Indeed, and speaking generally, I can't think of a writer working today with less of a feel for the rhythms and expressiveness of the English language.
His dialogue—most of it exposition of one sort or another—entirely lacks snap, or wit, or vim. It possesses a uniform greyness such that it would not be possible to tell one character from another by voice alone. Indeed, the characterisation as a whole is wincingly clumsy. His people are like characters drawn by a five-year-old; they have triangular bodies, sticks for arms and legs, splodgy asterisks for hands, and wonky features on their balloon faces. They think slowly, linearly, and always painfully obviously, and that thinking is always displayed for the reader via clunky interior monologue. Motivation is treated as a weirdly one-dimensional quantity. Eberly, for instance, wants power "to have the proof that the people of this habitat still admired him" (p. 157). There's literally nothing more to him than that. The paucity of this characterisation is then magnified and projected across the big screen of the novel by being repeated ("But they admire me, Eberly told himself" [p. 40]; "he would bask in their admiration" [p. 41]; "being admired by everyone—everyone!—that's the really great thing in life ... I don't need anything or anyone, not as long as I'm chief administrator" [p. 188]) and then repeated some more ("Power is what makes people admire you ... Power is more important than sex, he repeated to himself. I don't need a woman hanging onto me, not when I have the admiration of everybody in the habitat" [p. 270]) to the point of readerly nausea.
It would be nice to say that some other, SFnal or Campbellian aspect of the novel compensates for all this rubbish—the worldbuilding, say; the politics maybe—but it is not so. There's a problem of suspension of disbelief right at the beginning, where we just have to accept the idea that this luxurious and super-expensive environment was built by authoritarian governments to rid themselves of ten thousand "dissidents, idealists, troublemakers" ... as if Stalin sent his political opponents to Siberia (an analogy made several times in Titan) to live in luxury penthouse apartments, or the nineteenth-century British shipped their undesirables to Australia and then housed them all in marble palaces at state expense. But even if we swallow that jagged horsepill of a premise, the execution is very poor. Bova wholly lacks the skill to do what (say) Kim Stanley Robinson does so brilliantly in his Mars books—to render a whole off-earth society as a believable, three-dimensional thing.
Technology has notionally made enormous advances by 2096, including charter flights from Earth to the planets, the use of pharmaceutical and industrial nanotechnology, longevity treatments, and the ability to bring deep-frozen corpses back to life. But none of these things have changed the plodding, 1950s feel of Bova's imagined future. Computing seems to have stalled somewhere around 1988. The Titan probe is so big and clumsy even the Soviets in the 1960s might have thought twice about launching it. Social interaction is slow and old-fashioned. Presidential debates happen via outdoors hustings. Bova's 2096 characters limit their range of reference to things like Eeyore, Stalin, the Gestapo, McDonalds, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings—which is rather as if a novel set in 1996 contained characters whose points of cultural reference were exclusively the novels of Edward Bulwer Lytton, HMS Pinafore, Napoleon III, the Paris Commune, and macassar hair oil.
Moreover, in an odd detail—and with the exception of a few thin individuals ("Urbain was a short wiry man, the kind who never worried about his weight" [p. 28])—the characters all seem to have a weight problem. We're told that there exists nanotechnology to facilitate slimming, but, for some reason, nobody takes it. Instead they fret like senior citizens about what their bathroom scales are telling them: "Yañez ... had added nearly ten kilos to his weight since joining this habitat and he worried about that" (p. 62); "Wilmot ... his midsection was thickening" (p. 158); "Despite being fairly portly Berkowitz cut a rather dapper figure" (p. 189); "A roundish, unhappy looking man standing beside Mrs Yañez" (p. 320). It's like the novel is populated with the cast of Star Trek V.
Then there's Nadia Wunderly, one of the major figures in the book. Anxiety about weight constitutes pretty much the whole of what I suppose I must call her "characterisation": "She was a young woman ... buxom, yes, but also heavyset, thick in the waist and limbs" (p. 25) ... "a chubby young woman" (p. 46) ... "Look at me! I'm fat as a pig!" (p. 68) ... "Wunderly was chubby. Her basic body type was chunky, big-boned. She would never look sylphlike or slinky" (p. 69); "I'm going to make a New Year's resolution, she told herself. I'll lose another ten kilos." (p. 114); "'I've always been kind of dumpy and mousy,' Wunderly confessed" (p. 339). Did I mention that Bova's version of women was entirely caricatured and essentialised?
But the main impression I took away from this book was of Bova's immense, almost heroic, ineptness as a stylist. This is a book for Thog, not actual readers; a book that repeatedly provokes the response but what was he thinking? What sort of author writes a sentence like "he had none of his miniscule staff with him" (p. 189) without realising that readers are going to picture not a staff of few people, but a staff of midgets? How could any author have a character "put a finger against his lips" and say "Wunderly and her frickin' rings" (p. 177) and not see that he's doing an (in the context in which the lines appear) inappropriate impression of Doctor Evil from Austin Powers? What author thinks that describing a layer of clouds as like "pregnant elephants" (p. 443) is a good idea? Does he not see that writing "his face went darker than usual. 'Now they all think I'm yellow'" (p. 203) will make readers picture the character as coloured like French mustard? Or that describing a woman's skin as being "like toasted bread" (p. 134) gives the impression that her complexion is crumby? And then we read:
"It's like one of those dreams where you are struggling to get away from something horrible but you can't move. Your feet are mired in mud, or sinking into wet concrete." (p. 180)
It's too painfully true.
I shall drive back to June 2007 in my specially adapted DeLorean to meet Doc and tell him who wins the Campbell. His boggle eyes will open wide and his mouth will fall slack. "Ben Bova's Titan?" he will say. "Are you crazy?"