Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Able One

Able1

 

Ben Bova, Able One. Tor, 2010, 369 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6358-9

Rating: 6 out of 10

 

 

As I told the audience at WorldCon75, Ben Bova is one of my favorite authors. I won’t say that he’s the most exciting or literary SF author around, because he isn’t. However, his books have a constant quality and invariably provide an interesting and entertaining read. Some time ago, I checked my book collection for lacunae and noticed that I missed Able One, a novel published in 2010. It’s out of print, but I obtained a used copy through Amazon and recently got around to reading it. I was not disappointed.

As usual, Bova delivers a gripping story. This one is set in a very near future. That, of course, always poses the risk that current events may overtake the extrapolation used in the novel. And indeed it happens here, too, but not in a way that distracts too much from the narrative. An important part of the story is played by North Korea, after the death of Kim Jong-il. Kim indeed passed away about a year after this book was published, but the civil strive mentioned in the book did not take place and, instead, Kim was succeeded rather seamlessly by his son, Kim Jong-un. Of course, the civil strive described by Bova might still come about, if something were to happen to the current supreme leader.

The novel begins when a dissident faction of the North Korean Army launches a missile that puts a nuclear warhead into a geostationary orbit and subsequently explodes it. The resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all but the most hardened military satellites that orbit the Earth and as a result, many essential services shut down. This, of course, brings immediately to mind the recent test by North Korea of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-15, even though an intercontinental ballistic missile will probably not be able to reach geostationary orbit. Indeed, in the book the North Koreans are helped by either the Russians or the Chinese to accomplish this feat. Similarly, they obtain nuclear warheads from the same source, which is a bit surprising, because in reality North Korea already had performed two nuclear tests (in 2006 and 2009), before this book was published.

The destruction of so many satellites leads to interruption in major services, most notably the breakdown of the GPS system and communications, including the Internet. Electrical power goes down in many places, too, as it depends on intricate balances between different power grids, whose coordination depends on fast and secure communications. In addition, because the weather satellites are down, accurate weather forecasting becomes completely impossible. All this has, of course, serious consequences for the people depending on these services. This brings me to one of the major weaknesses of this book. Several subplots are started at this point of the narrative: A jumbo jet in trouble because the navigation system is down, a family lost in a blizzard, a woman trying to buy pecans, and more. However, those subplots are mostly left dangling and we never learn, for example, what the fate of that troubled jumbo jet is.

Meanwhile in Alaska, ABL-1, a modified 747 with on-board an experimental laser system designed to shoot down ballistic missiles in the early stages of their launch trajectory, is ready for a test flight when orders come in from the Pentagon to fly in the direction of Japan and North Korea. In fact, the North Koreans have two more intercontinental ballistic missiles set up, and it is feared that these will be fired against the United States mainland in an attempt to start a nuclear war. I won’t go into more detail about the plot and how the mission develops, except to say that during its flight, ABL-1 needs to be refueled in flight and gets severely damaged by enemy fire.

These latter details were rather similar to a book that, by happenstance, I read just before Able One. This was Two Hours To Doom (published in the USA with the considerably weaker title Red Alert) by Peter Bryant (a pseudonym of Peter Bryan George) and originally published way back in 1958. Fatale CommandoThe reason I came to read such an old and relatively obscure book was that while inserting some recently-acquired books into my collection, I stumbled upon it and realized that I didn’t remember ever having read it. My copy is in Dutch (Het fatale commando), meaning that I must have bought it before I left the Netherlands back in May 1984. It is well possible, therefore, that I read it over 33 years ago and completely forgot all about it. After re-reading it, I looked it up in Wikipedia and discovered to my surprise that it apparently had served as inspiration for Stanley Kubrick‘s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Of course, it’s also very long ago that I saw that movie, but I remember enough of it to be surprised anyway. Where the movie is a comedy, albeit a dark one, the book is deadly serious (and there is no “Dr. Strangelove” anywhere in the book, neither by name nor by character).

The parallels between the two books are easy to see. In both cases a large plane gets hit by enemy fire while it is on a desperate mission: nuclear war and the end of life on Earth as we know it looms. Another common point is that the motives and thinking of the opposing parties do not receive much attention. But there the similarities end. In Able One, the mission is to prevent nuclear war (by trying to destroy the North Korean missiles when they get launched). In Red Alert, the mission of the B-52 bomber Alabama Angel is to drop two nukes on Soviet targets as a retaliation for a supposed attack on the US (which unbeknownst to the crew actually never happened). Both stories are gripping and like Able One, Red Alert is very readable, even nowadays. Of course, Red Alert does not try to extrapolate into the future and doesn’t run the risk of being overtaken by current events like Able One. Instead, however, the plane’s defenses, the fact that no intercontinental ballistic missiles are operational yet (although their deployment is imminent), and other military and political details make that the book, even while it was clearly not intended that way, reads like a historical novel.

In the end, Bova turns out to be the better writer. Even though character development is not his strongest point, the people in his novel are clearly more rounded and fleshed-out than the rather flat and interchangeable characters in the otherwise competently written Red Alert. Both books are worth a read: Able One because it provides a few hours of entertainment and Two Hours To Doom because it gives an excellent idea of the mindsets of American military and politicians during a critical period of the Cold War.

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Recent Reads: Ben Bova, Transhuman

transhuman

Ben Bova, Transhuman. Tor, 2014, 387 pp. ISBN 978-0-7653-6932-1

Rating: 7 out of 10

Ben Bova is a rather prolific writer and one of my favorites. Basically, I just buy any book of his that comes out. Invariably, his books are great fun to read. Transhuman is no exception. Unlike most of Bova’s work, it is a standalone novel that is not part of any series. The story follows Luke Abramson, an elderly scientist of 75-years-old working on telomeres, the capping regions of chromosomes. Telomeres differ in size among people and this fact has generated a lot of interest from scientists in different fields because of several reasons. To start with, it has been observed that people with longer telomeres tend to live longer. With successive cell divisions, telomeres become shorter until they are so short that cell division becomes impossible. Importantly though, it is not clear whether shorter telomeres are just a biomarker of cellular aging or whether shortening actually causes aging. It has been speculated that restoring telomere length might be a way to rejuvenation. However… It has also been shown that telomeres may play a role in cancer; hence, manipulating them is not necessarily benign and may carry significant risks.

When the story starts, Abramson’s granddaughter is dying from an incurable brain cancer. Of course, he is convinced that by shortening her telomeres, he can cure her, because that will force the tumor cells to stop dividing, giving the girl’s immune system the chance to rid her system of any malignant cells. An expected side effect is progeria, a rare disorder in which children age rapidly and die of old age by the time they reach adolescence. Of course, Abramson thinks he can treat this by elongating the girl’s telomeres again, although that has the risk of re-igniting the cancer. Meanwhile, Abramson has been running all over the country: because his daughter and son-in-law, the child’s parents, refuse to let him use their child as a guinea pig, Abramson, convinced of his treatment, has abducted the kid. Conveniently, the physician treating the child decides to run off with him, although initially she is opposed to his experimental treatment and does not really have a good reason to put her whole career in jeopardy. She is also an attractive young woman. Do I really need to add that in the end, she and Abramson end up a couple? Oh, right, he’s 75. No problem! When the fugitive life becomes too taxing, Abramson injects himself with a treatment intended to increase the length of his telomeres and, presto, he starts to look younger and younger.

Bova’s protagonist, Abramson, while working in two of the hottest areas in science (cancer and aging), is described as a kind of lone wolf. Sure, he has some grad students and postdocs, but apart from that does not seem to collaborate with anybody. Needless to say, this is not really the way science works and I don’t think that any scientist working alone with a few grad students will find the cure for cancer, let alone that he would simultaneously come up with a rejuvenation therapy. Worse, Abramson loses his NIH funding, despite the fact that everybody agrees that he’s a brilliant scientist. He then secures funding from a rich benefactor. Nevertheless, his university pushes him to retire, something I find highly unlikely given Abramson’s active funding status (unless this benefactor is not paying any overheads to the university, which I think is unlikely, too). This is not the first time that I have noticed that Bova, although a lot of his novels feature academics, is not really familiar with the way university research works.

Back to the telomeres. Unfortunately for Bova, who at 84 most likely is interested in a treatment that would restore his youth (aren’t we all…), things are quite a bit more complicated than he presents them in his book. Simply elongating or shortening telomeres is unlikely to be a cure for cancer or to reverse the effects of aging. But, one might argue, this is science fiction. We should suspend some of our disbelief in the interest of the story, right? I agree and would be less harsh about the scientific part of this novel, if, for example, the treatment had just been a writer’s gimmick to explore the effects on society of something that cures cancer and significantly expands our life span. Unfortunately, Bova doesn’t go down that path.

We have his usual bone-headed politicians, who just can’t see the importance of things or, when they finally do, get it all wrong. Early on, the US president and her advisers get all up in arms about the life-expansion treatment. If people live till 150, Medicare will go broke! Our pension system will break down! It takes them several hundred pages to realize that if people stay healthy much longer, they don’t need to retire at 65 or 70 any more but can work until they’re 110 or so. Medicare and the pension system are not the problem, of course. What would be a problem is the population explosion that we would face if such treatments became available suddenly instead of very gradually. But that aspect is not even mentioned in this novel.

So the story is flimsy and full of Bova’s trademark clichés: the smart protagonist who sees everything correctly and knows how to deal with all the problems facing him, the people around him that don’t believe him, the bone-headed politicians that don’t see the obvious and only look after their narrow self-interest, the ruthless industrialist who wants to use the invention to make as much profit as possible and to hell  with the consequences, and finally the pretty young woman who falls for our hero in the end. If that all sounds a bit formulaic, well, it is. So, why do I still rate it 7 out of 10? Well, Bova is quite simply an excellent writer. The book kept me captivated and even though it was easy to foresee several turns of the plot, somehow it is comforting to revisit familiar haunts. Altogether, the book provided several hours of simple diversion, not more, not less. And let’s face it, that’s not something that one can say about every book!