Farside ( Feb 2013, Tor)
Six-time Hugo Award winning novelist and master visionary Ben Bova wrote the first SF novel in his Grand Tour series nearly thirty years ago. Since then, the Grand tour has delighted science fiction readers by transporting them to Mercury, Venus, Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, and Saturn. Bova brings each destination to life by blending realistic science with speculative plots and interesting, deeply flawed characters.
Take a walk on the Farside
The books in the Grand Tour stand alone and in no particular order. Therefore, a reader can dive into the latest one without feeling too lost. Completing each in time-sequence (not published order) does lend continuity to the background politics and character motivations, however.
Farside, the latest installment in the Grand Tour, takes us back to the Moon at a point in future history after the independent republic of Selene has broken away from its authoritarian masters on Earth. By relying upon nanotechnology, Selene inhabitants maintain a fragile existence underground. Life is harsh on the Moon, and Bova loves to create tough characters who survive and thrive in the lunar wilderness.
Farside raises the bar one step higher than his earlier Moon novels. Living on the far side of the Moon, the scientists and engineers of Farside Base long for the relative safety of Selene. At this small colony of a colony, workers build massive optical and radio telescopes for exploring the heavens free from the spectrum pollution from Earth or Selene. They compete scientifically with a consortium on Earth building a vast array of telescopes out in space.
Now for the plot catalyst: Optical telescopes on Earth have discovered an Earth-sized rocky planet in the nearby solar system of Sirius A, the brightest star in our night sky. This planet called New Earth appears to have an atmosphere, which shouldn’t be possible due to the proximity of Sirius B, the white dwarf binary companion of Sirius A.
The race is on to solve this major scientific paradox, and the remote Farside colony becomes ground zero for skullduggery and shenanigans as the engineers race to finish their telescope array before the consortium on Earth finishes theirs. Accidents and sabotage lead to accusations, and all the while the clock ticks down toward success or failure for the Farside settlement.
Engineering vs Science
Bova uses two main characters to draw the reader deeply into to the political and scientific intrigue. His “engineer” character exemplifies a future lunar engineer: capable, focused on his work schedule, and willing to take some personal chances if it leads to a safer or better result. His “scientist” character works in the background and delivers results when it is her time to shine.
These characters think and act very differently, just as real world engineers and scientists sometimes clash on space project goals. Neither of them quite “gets” the other one, but they work it out and do well together.
Radiation, Nanotech, and Psych 101
Bova dives deeply into the lunar radiation hazard, spelling out the dangers of lunar surface work. His main engineering character even goes so far as to take performance enhancing steroids to allow him to work longer through more pain. And when the steroids begin to ruin the engineer’s health, he turns to nanotechnology for a cure. The engineering team also makes wise use of telerobotics to minimize the time they spend on the surface.
Nanotechnology shows up in several forms and places in the book, but the ability of nanobots to repair radiation damage to the human body deserves special attention. Bova plays both sides of the (future) nanobot controversy well. He speculates that nanobots could build amazing structures or cure a wide range of physical ailments while keeping the host body young and beautiful. But he also exposes the fear and paranoia against nanotechnology back on Earth, the threat of “gobblers” wreaking invisible destruction upon mankind, and the possibility that rouge laboratories could create nanobots with relatively long lifetimes.
As another cornerstone of Farside, isolationist psychology holds the story together and drives proper character motivations. From the very first scene, a scary hopper ride to Farside base, Bova expertly captures the magnificent seclusion of living at the one place in the inner solar system where you could never see the Earth. Later in the book, as the danger to the Farside inhabitants grows, their first thought is to return to the safety of Selene. Sometimes the characters lose themselves gazing into a night sky filled with endless stellar brilliance.
Despite the dangers, I think I would enjoy living at Farside.
Final grade: A-
While Farside (the novel) works well in nearly all regards, some minor character development problems prevent it from earning a perfect score. The head of Farside base, a scientist nicknamed “The Ulcer”, never quite became real to me. Likewise, the main villain and henchman came across somewhat two dimensional because I couldn’t quite tap into their motivations.
These are very minor dings against the novel because the plot still works and those characters are motivated by some concerns far removed from things we deal with on Earth today. One hallmark of good science fiction is the ability to stretch the reader’s perspective… and Farside accomplishes this goal handily.