by Ben Bova
Ben Bova’s recent novels focus on the exploration of the inner solar system. In Moonrise and Moonwar, he told the story of the colonization of the moon and its struggle against the governments of earth. In Mars and Return to Mars, he detailed the first two manned expeditions to the red planet. Now, Bova turns his attention to Venus and a mission to recover one of the bodies of the first mission to attempt a landing there. Van Humphries decision to travel to Venus and retrieve his brother’s corpse is caused by his billionaire father’s decision to cut off his allowance. In many ways, Van Humphries dysfunctional relationship with his father is similar to the relationship portrayed by Bova between Dex Trumball and his father in Return to Mars. Immediately after announcing that Van is cut off, the elder Humphries offers a ten billion dollar prize to whomever can retrieve the body of his eldest son, who died attempting to land on Venus. Naturally, this forces Van, a do-nothing playboy, to decide to go to Venus. The parallel between Humphries’s incentive to go to Venus and John Axelrod’s incentive in Gregory Benford’s recent The Martian Race, may indicate the beginnings of a consensus within the science fiction community that the future of space exploration will be in private, rather than public, hands. Bova has already suggested such an action in his novel Return to Mars. As mentioned, Van Humphries is seen by his friends, family and colleague as a do-nothing playboy. The reader receives the same impression of Van, and, even when he finally does initiate action, he still comes across as reasonably whiny and shallow. It isn't until the very end of the novel that Bova indicates a change in Van, and then much of the change is occurs off stage. Humphries's nemesis, Lars Fuchs, is, perhaps a little more three-dimensional, but comes across as a tin-pot tyrant mixed with Jules Verne's Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Given the history of science fiction depicting Venus as a swamp or water world, this is an interesting decision. In Venus, Bova’s plot and his characters are really only an excuse to depict the hostile environment of Venus, a planet which is frequently ignored by the science fiction community. In the past, such classic stories as “The Space Merchants” (Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Carson of Venus sequence were set on a version of the shrouded planet populated by swamps. Since the discovery of the Hellish conditions on the planet, it has practically been declared off limits, with a few anomalous stories such as Larry Niven’s “Becalmed in Hell” (1965) or Pamela Sargent's Venus of Dreams (1986) and Venus of Shadows (1988). The majority of Bova's characters' time spent "on" Venus is in their crafts getting near the surface, although eventually one of the characters does manage a landing. Much of Venus comes across as a travelogue of the Venusian atmosphere.
While much of Bova's speculation about Venus is interesting, he offers little indication that observations would support any of the more wild theories he advances about the planet, its past and its future. What speculation he does provide is telegraphed from the early planning stages of Humphries's expedition, as are many of the plot twists which occur throughout the novel. Bova has, time and again, demonstrated his talents much better than he does in Venus.