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Gonna Play For The Sky

The Precipice  (Asteroid Wars)

By Ben Bova 

8 Jun, 2021

Blatant Self-Aggrandizement


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2001’s The Precipice is the first volume in Ben Bova’s Asteroid Wars series, which in turn takes place in his interminable Grand Tour setting. 

The Precipiceis also the very first book I was paid to review. I suspect the reason my review garnered me a place as one of the SFBC’s first-readers was less due to any insight I offered and more because I had the book read and the review submitted less than a day later. Twenty years and six thousand nine hundred plus reviews later, how does The Precipice stand up?

Heartbroken over the death of his former lover, former President Jane Scanwell (who died while assisting refugees from a natural disaster), Dan Randolph sets out to save the 21st century1 Earth from climate change and civilization itself from the short-sighted bureaucrats, self-serving politicians, deranged conservatives of the New Morality, and (of course!) the witless masses who enable the activities of the preceding factions. 

Rather conveniently, no sooner has Randolph resolved to fix a broken world than malevolent businessman and compulsive horn dog billionaire Martin Humphries arrives in Randolph’s office to offer the means to do just that. There is, of course, a catch.

Among Humphries’ blue-sky investments: a visionary fusion power program that has produced astounding results. Rather than the behemoth structures conventional fusion generation demands, Lyall Duncan’s fusion generator is low mass. Thus, the so-called Duncan Drive could power efficient rockets, which could in turn permit humanity to mine the resources of the Asteroid Belt. Space developer Randolph is the logical choice to make this dream real.

This is splendid news, were it not for Randolph’s well-founded suspicion that Humphries’ main goal is not the salvation of humanity but the inexorable acquisition of Randolph’s Astro Corporation as a side effect of joint efforts to turn the Duncan Drive from blueprint to reality. Determined to protect his life’s work from the grasping oligarch, Randolph begins searching for other investment partners. Humphries (of course!) foresaw this and takes counter-measures.

Nor are Humphries’ activities the only significant impediment Randolph faces. Despite Earth’s endless climate change calamities, the bureaucratic organizations that rule the Earth protect only the status quo. Thus, they’ve already banned mining and manufacturing on Near-Earth Asteroids on the pretext that an industrial mishap could send a NEO careening into the Earth. The last person to deliver an asteroid into Earth orbit was bankrupted by the legal consequences. 

Frustrated with needless, costly World Government mandated tests, Randolph secretly crews the Star Power 1 with a handpicked crew and heads off with them at one sixth gee to prove his technology by surveying the Asteroid Belt first hand. Unfortunately for Randolph, the Star Power 1 has been sabotaged by Humphries’ agent. Humphries planned only to ruin an un-crewed test but if the sabotage manages to kill Randolph as well, Humphries is more than happy to take the inadvertent win. 


My comments back in 2001 were pretty perfunctory, but at least I enthusiastically embraced run-on sentences and parentheses. 

This is very much a retread of themes Bova was exploring in the 1970s [There’s a strong similarity, in my opinion, between Randolph and Kinsman from Millennium]. I found parts of the plot implausible, especially the various romances. As well although clearly Bova keeps up on current astronomical research there are odd glitches in the science, the most glaring example of which is that although a major source of difficulty is the continued production of greenhouse gases as a side effect of power production and even though it is easy to show that the Starpower 1 is generating more power than Earth of 2001 does, they don’t even consider applying the fusion system to that particular problem because, I suspect, Bova’s point is to hammer home the idea that space exploitation is needed to save Earth rather than explore the implications of the technologies he proposes. Again, very much like his 1970s work. Only the details of what we need to be saved from (Resource exhaustion in the 1970s and greenhouse issues today) have changed. I’d have loved the simplistic world view, plotting and characters when I was sixteen but at forty I find them annoying.
—James Nicoll 6/8/01

For the most part, Bova’s science fiction seems to have been frozen in amber some time around 1975. His treatment of women in particular (Supporting character Pancho being the significant exception) features a constant, nearly parodic, male gaze. His prose is middling Analog-grade. The worldbuilding — with some exceptions I will discuss later — is simplistic and in many respects archaic. It does not help that Bova begins his book with a quotation from Carleton S. Coon (born June 23, 1904, died June 3, 1981), an anthropologist whose models had long since been abandoned by his peers. But if one cannot launch a book with a quotation from a racist pseudoscientist, whom can one quote? 

There are two details that might allow readers to deduce that The Precipicewas written in 2001 and not, say, 1972

One is the shoehorning of lunar helium three into the plot. I’m afraid that all too many SF authors have adopted lunar helium three mining as a pretext for space development. Mentioning it seems to have been de rigueur for any self-regarding space-resource exploitation novel. (This despite the sheer scientific illiteracy of the meme, upon which I have expended much vitriol.) Now, unlike many of his colleagues, Bova has some idea how little helium three there is in lunar regolith; the amount of regolith that needs to be processed to produce even small amounts of helium three means that lunar sources will be insufficient to allay Earth’s climate woes2. Point to Bova!

The other is that unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Bova accepted anthropogenic climate change as a real thing and not, say, blatant lies put about by hairy-legged rad-fem commie tree-hugging gay vegetarian gun-grabbing subscribers to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It would be a better world if that bland acceptance of scientific fact were not unusual enough to be worth remarking on, but here we are. 

It would a sad review if I could not find one positive thing to say about the book in hand, so let Bova’s views on climate change be that one thing. 

But otherwise … this is a stupendously mediocre work3. Rereading The Precipice twenty years later, I bitterly regret my overly kind review of June 2001. Prose, plot, characters, narrative pace … the book is below par in almost every way that it could be. Judging by the number of sequels and related books Bova published after 2001, this was just what the readers wanted. 

But at least Bova gave me my current career. So, I guess I have two positive things to say about this book. 

The Precipiceis available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Bova appears to have prudently declined to provide a specific date for this book’s setting, but since Scanwell was the fifty-second President of the United States and is out of office, we can say it is at least twenty-five years in the future and possibly more than half a century. Call it 2046 to 2070

2: Bova may have also needed to provide a reason why lunar-helium three-fueled fusion had not solved the greenhouse gas issue. Or rather, another reason. Entrenched fossil fuel companies are still working hard to maintain their right to pour CO2 into the atmosphere even in the mid to late 21stcentury.

3: Mind you, better than Bova’s Titan.