Ben Bova,
The Precipice
(The Asteroid Wars, Volume I)

(Tor, 2001)

American doyen of nuts-and-bolts hard SF adds another volume to his next-century saga of solar system exploration -- a companion to Venus, Jupiter, etc. The Precipice, first in a projected trilogy, refers in its title to the disastrous warming effects of the "Greenhouse Cliff" on Earth's climate, causing flooding to coastal cities, drought to farmlands and displacement of millions who face homelessness and famine. Hope to ease the plight of Earth lies in exploiting the resources of the Asteroid Belt, the logistics of which needs the finances and high technology of private industry and in the novel two such rival entities in particular.

Astro Manufacturing, Inc., headed by struggling maverick and idealistic businessman Dan Randolph, pools assets with Martin Humphries, an unscrupulous, spoiled-brat and heir to a vast fortune who wishes to dominate the market in asteroid exploration. Teaming up with interested independent parties who live on the Moon (as opposed to the obfuscating bureaucracies and the pessimistic New Morality of Earth), Randolph and Humphries set up a corporation to use new innovations in fusion and nanotechnology to construct an experimental spacecraft that will make mining the Asteroid Belt a financially viable reality.

Randolph's desires to help save humankind contrasts with Humphries' greedy wishes to control for personal gain, generating the suspense that drives the plot -- for Humphries will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Randolph himself goes on the mission in Starpower I along with the highly qualified, refreshingly feisty female pilots Pancho Lane and Amanda Cunningham and planetary geologist Lars Fuchs. Humphries, yearning for the expedition to fail in order to buy out Astro Corp. and eliminate any competition, attempts to recruit Lane to spy on her boss. At the same time he blackmails nanotech Nobel laureate Kris Cardenas to sabotage the ship, an action that torments the brilliant lady scientist. In addition to all this, Humphries lusts after Cunningham, who only cares for Fuchs.

In his unadorned, workmanlike prose, Bova tells how Lane proves her loyalty to Randolph and how the various interpersonal, technical and corporate intrigues get resolved (some resolutions with unfortunate consequences amidst the triumphs). This involves cutting from vivid descriptions of the voyage to the Asteroid Belt to the activities of Humphries and Cardenas, et al, on the Moon's Selene Colony, making for exciting, suspenseful and emotionally gripping reading with a climax that thoroughly satisfies while leaving hints for developments to occur in future volumes. Bova's characters here could be considered his most complex and interesting so far with his story featuring strong and engaging women, a sympathetic and charismatic protagonist and a completely nasty yet believable antagonist.

The supporting players also have enough depth to be distinctive in this swift-paced, spaceworthy yarn that will add further luster to Bova's already confirmed stature among the best writers of thoughtfully conceived hard SF.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 24 November 2001

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