Soaked in 1970s-style sexism like a hopeful swinger reeking of Hai Karate

Colony — Ben Bova

Colony

1978’s Colony is a sequel of sorts to Bova’s earlier Millennium.

Chet Kinsman’s sacrifice in Millennium was not entirely in vain; the Cold War is over and in 2008, the Earth is governed by a World Government directed by the well-meaning socialist De Paolo. Unfortunately the essential issues—overpopulation, and the pollution and resource depletion that accompany it—that drove the United States and the Soviet Union to contemplate nuclear war didn’t vanish with the Cold War. The weak World Government can manage little beyond palliative measures. Doomsday has been delayed, not prevented.

And there are those who are doing their best to push the world towards its final crisis as quickly as they can.


Although the World Government is opposed by petty nationalists and idiot revolutionaries in the form of the People’s Revolutionary Underground, its real enemy is a cabal of the hyper-rich billionaires who see no reason why they should share their vast wealth with the mewling hordes who even now breed and multiply across the face of the planet. Their wealth gives the billionaires power, but it is their vast artificial world at the Earth-Moon L4 point that makes them dangerous. Island One gives the plutocrats a refuge in which they can ride out the apocalypse toward which they have been pushing the world.

The World Government not only has limited resources with which to address the world’s problems, but its upper levels are populated by self-serving power-mongers, some of whom are members of the Island One cabal. Technology that was supposed to be monopolized by the World Government, in particular weather control, is being turned against it. The billionaires intend to force the Malthusian crisis to its logical end. The resulting calamity will probably kill billions, but it will also allow the billionaires in Island One to reshape the world to their liking.

As so often happens in novels like this, conspiracies against which governments are powerless crumple when challenged by a naïve but energetic young man, with the help of a sexy young reporter and an equally sexy Arab princess.

David Adams, the world’s first test-tube baby [1], has lived his entire life in Island One as one of the privileged. Reporter Evelyn Hall inspires David to take a closer look at the state of the world; he is horrified to discover it is on the brink of a Malthusian crisis.

David’s father figure, Dr. Cobb, helpfully explains that there’s nothing to be done to help the Earth, because the masses won’t stop breeding. Trying to help only means population will soar that much higher before collapsing.

This isn’t something that David wants to hear. Neither is Cobb’s revelation that David is not so much the favoured son of Island One as he is one of its more valuable properties. He is certainly too valuable to be allowed to leave Island One on some quixotic quest to save the world. This has exactly the effect an experienced reader would expect [2]. In short order, David has smuggled himself to the Moon and then to Earth.

Meanwhile, vengeful heiress Bahjat, believing her lover was murdered on the orders of her father Sheikh al-Hashimi, has embraced her role as a leader of the People’s Revolutionary Underground. She is a believer in bold action. Inspired by the fact that her father is one of the major investors in Island One, she orchestrates the hijacking of a space shuttle, the very vehicle on which David just happens to be a passenger.

Also meanwhile, T. Hunter Garrison, an ancient, wealth and incredibly racist member of the Island One cabal, is quietly orchestrating a nation-wide race riot in the USA. This massive armed urban uprising is of course doomed to be crushed by the superior forces of the American and World Government. Leo, the giant black mastermind behind the doomed rebellion, understands that his forces cannot win the battles to come but his purpose is to shake up the white minority in the US, as part of a longer game.

Garrison for his part just wants to see a lot of black and brown people die. Sure, the violence might spread out of the US but so what? He and his fellow conspirators will be safe up on Island One. Note that there’s one assumption underlying all of the various plots the cabal is fomenting: Island One is utterly, completely beyond the reach of the people down on Earth—completely, utterly immune to any retaliation from their victims.

That’s an assumption that the people on Island One are going to discover is very, very wrong.

~oOo~

This is an extremely 1970s novel and not just because it’s soaked in 1970s-style sexism like a hopeful swinger reeking of Hai Karate. The references to O’Neill space colonies at the Earth-Moon system’s Lagrange points alone would be enough to narrow down the publication date to a limited range of years. For a brief period in the 1970s, O’Neill space colonies were seen as close to inevitable, to the point Poul Anderson felt he had to explain why his 1978 novel Avatar didn’t feature any such colonies [3]. The bloom went off that rose very quickly.

You would also think the relentless Malthusianism would be enough date this novel, but you’d be wrong; Bova’s 2006 novel Titan and his 2009 The Return both have plots dependent on the assumption that women are fanatical baby-making machines who will flood any habitat they are in, natural or artificial, to capacity and beyond. You might well ask “but surely science fiction, which prides itself on being well-informed about the world, would be keeping an eye on the dramatic and sustained drop in birthrates across the planet [link ] since the 1970s” … but the fact that The Return cites Iran as having a soaring birthrate suggests that too much of published SF might be better described as fact-resistant rather than well informed.

I am on the fence about whether or not you can date this book by the depiction of cities

As a city ages and loses its energy sources (tax payers), the city begins to swell. We call this urban sprawl. But, just like a star, the city’s core is becoming denser, hotter, degenerate. Ultimately the city will die. The bigger the city, the more likely that its death throes will include an explosion. Very large cities, such as New York, will probably explode so violently that there will be nothing left. Not even a Black Hole

It’s clear to me Bova has been inspired by New York’s financial problems in the 1970s. But it could be more than that. It seems to me that a lot of SF views cities and large concentrations of people with extreme suspicion. Heinlein’s Between Planets, Anderson’s “Time Lag”, Steele’s Coyote series, Varley’s Thunder and Lightning series come to mind as examples of this theme. This may be driven by recent history, but I think a lot of it is due to a combination of the traditional view of the city as an inherently degenerate place and the American ideal of the frontier. If a reasonable person is be shown as wanting to run off to space, home has to be worse.

In the passage above, Bova was comparing cities to fate of stars, thus the Black Hole at the end. That’s an astronomical reference, not a racist dog whistle. It’s true that most of the urban revolutionaries are black. However, Bova’s US is 80% non-white by 2008 and in any case passages like this one

Long before the first energy shortages, Manhattan had started to die. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the city had collapsed. Families with the money to do so had moved to the suburbs. Businesses followed them. The poor remained in the city. In fact, poor rural families from the South, the West, even Puerto Rico, poured into the city. Again and again, the cycle turned, as the tax-paying rich left and the needy poor stayed.
And multiplie

make it clear Bova dislikes poor people of all kinds.

An interesting lacuna in the above roster of 1970s bête noirs is the total absence of paranoia about immigrants. That often goes hand in hand with Malthusian fears. Harry Harrison’s emetic Make Room, Make Room wouldn’t be the same without its hordes of fecund Chinese immigrants crowding New York City, for example. Even though the US has an immigration rate about average for an OECD nation, such mere facts generally don’t assuage the American immigration anxiety. It’s interesting that this trope is not found in Colony, nor, so far as I can recall, in any of Bova’s fiction.

While it’s interesting to see Bova trying to expand his gallery of characters beyond the usual WASPs, I have to say this novel shows one of the great dangers of that gambit. Your SF author of the 1970s wasn’t particularly well-equipped to write an Arab, a Kurd, or even an African-American without those characters coming across as racist caricatures. Well, points for acknowledging that Arabs, Kurds and African-Americans exist, I guess.

It’s generally a bad idea to look to SF for visionary insight into social change , which is why, for example, Bova is among the legions who didn’t see the collapse of the Soviet Union coming (in this book, the USSR is still ruling over Eastern Europe with the support of the World Government) or the peaceful fall of apartheid South Africa (it is violently overthrown midway through this book). What really stands out, however, is the steadfast sexism in this book. Evelyn and Bahjat may have agency but most of the other women in the book are either low-level bureaucrats or sex toys. None of them participate in the councils that rule the world.

Indeed, De Paolo, the head of the world government, has convinced himself that denying women political power is a favour:

We still do not allow women to rise to the level of the Executive Council. That would be too cruel.

The other men in the book have a more predatory approach; Evelyn has to submit to sodomy to convince a PRU upper-ranker to let her tag along. As for poor Bahjat:

[Bahjat] looked away from [David]. “So I am to be a prisoner here on island One?”
“You’re my prisoner, Bahjat I’ve been yours; now it’s your turn to be mine.
“You’re serious?”
“Yes. I love you and I want you with me.”

The former revolutionary leader becomes David’s reward at the end of the book, like a slave girl awarded to a victorious warrior.

One of the problems with this novel is Bova’s decision to tie it into the Kinsman series. I am not entirely sure how old David is but old enough that twenty-six-year-old Evelyn Hall ogles his ass without being too creeped out by any age difference. He’s treated as a rebellious young adult by his adoptive father, Dr. Cobb. That would hint that he is eighteen or so. But for David to have lived his whole life in Island One, construction on the habitat would have had to begin no later than 1990. Yet in Millennium, set in 1999, there was no hint that there existed an engineering skillset that could construct a pair of Manhattan-sized cylinders, or that any such cylinders were under construction.

This novel isn’t all Malthusianism, discredited space boosterism, sexism, and unfortunate depictions of various enthnicities. There is one thing I liked about this book in the 1970s, a detail that stuck with me for decades. Indeed, when Blomkamp’s Elysium came out a couple of years ago, I wondered if he or one of his writers had ever read Colony. That one kernel of not-suckitude is that as convenient as it is for space perverts to think they can sit isolated from events on Earth (and you see this idea, that space offers a glorious isolation from the swarming degenerates of Earth, a Galt’s Gulch if you will, all too frequently in near-future SF), it’s probably not true. Not only is a completely self-sufficient community hard to create (and as North Korea shows, unlikely to be prosperous)—if the colonists can get there, so too can other people from Earth. The colony might be a lifeboat, but it is not an isolated one.

As far as I can tell, there may be a Kindle edition of Colony, but it is otherwise out of print.

1: In the sense that he was gestated in an artificial womb after his mother was killed in a space mishap.

2: Also the effect at which Cobb was aiming. He wanted to inspire David to get off his pampered ass and do something useful.

3: Actually, I think there was one but the need for it had been superseded by technology. I guess I could reread Avatar to check….


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