Ben Bova,
(Tor, 2002)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live and work on a space station in orbit about one of our solar system's distant planets? Or perhaps you've considered what the country would be like if the Religious Far Right achieved political power? Or, the possessor of an active imagination, you might have thought about exploring the deep oceans of the planet Jupiter in a submersible craft. In attempting any single one of these feats of imagination your best efforts are unlikely to approach those on display in Jupiter. However, Ben Bova shows himself to be without peer when he combines all three scenarios to tell a sizzling tale of adventure.

Jupiter's outer "thin" ocean is 10 times wider than the Earth and 500 times deeper. Yet below this is another layer of liquefied hydrogen whose depth is nearly eight times that of Earth's diameter, and below that yet again. ... To this virtually unexplored vastness comes the young scientist Grant Archer who, while certainly idealistic and a true (Christian) believer, is neither a fanatic nor a fool. The product of a strongly conformist political system (it is the near future), Grant is subject to the vague feelings of paranoia and repression that such systems engender in an individual.

The orbital station about Jupiter is a place that concentrates the mind -- small fragile humans peer out at an unimaginably vast universe. Grant takes solace from his religious faith, even more so as he is separated from his bride of only a few months. However, as of old, science and religion (or more correctly religion's political powermongers) are squaring up to each other. If life were found on Jupiter, particularly intelligent life, the discovery would undermine the political/religious system, based as it is on a comforting belief in the centrality of humans in the scheme of the universe.

Writers of science fiction are often criticised for neglecting the development of their protagonist's character. Defenders of the genre point out that an idea or a particular setting or environment can loom so large in SF that the writer must often develop this abstract or inanimate form as if it were a character in the story. Certainly the planet Jupiter assumes such a role in this novel. By necessity other protagonists are either rendered in sketchy outline or else are well-drawn stereotypes with whom the reader will be familiar. An example of the latter is Station Director Dr. Wo -- an obsessive, maniacal, fanatical sociopath who drives everyone relentlessly.

The writer is careful not to use any of his characters (including a cognitively enhanced gorilla) as if they were numbered dots to be simply joined sequentially until a dull, predictable story emerges. No indeed. Wo's personality is essential to the plot whereby young, unprepared Grant is forced to struggle with the surgical alterations and mental discipline required to join the crew of a spacecraft destined to plunge into Jupiter's deep oceans. The captain of this craft is another monomaniacal character, but this shorthand in characterization is forgotten (and forgiven) in the tense excitement generated as the ship submerges to beyond its design specification and this captain gives the order: "Deeper!"

Grant, the novel's main protagonist. sees his world exclusively in terms of "good vs. evil." A need for prayer, for example when confronted with sexual temptation, is a logical consequence of this belief system. But Grant gets a shock when he first controls the awesome power of the submersible spaceship by means of a direct mind-machine interface. Here Bova places his high-minded character under extreme pressure, both physical and metaphorical, as powerful emotions of god-like power, sexual violence and dominance suffuse Grant's mind.

Jupiter is a "hard SF" novel with exploration of the eponymous planet its main theme, and of course any such exploration will necessarily have it dangers, adventures and excitement. This may sound formulaic but the author ably demonstrates what else is achievable when writing within (and perhaps only within) the conventions of genre SF. For instance, only in SF could a man like Grant be brought in the space of a few short narrative steps (the mind-machine interface above) to the very gates of his hell.

- Rambles
written by Conor O'Connor
published 7 December 2002

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