Book Review: Farside
by Ben Bova
Gigantic egos and tiny machines clash in the latest novel by science fiction titan (and Hugo Award-winning editor of Analog magazine) Ben Bova. The title refers both to the side of the moon permanently facing away from Earth, and the observatory attempting to photograph Sirius C, a planet the media have presumptuously named “New Earth.”
Doing so means building an optical interferometer–an array of three enormous telescopes–that could, from space, reveal the planet’s surface and possible atmosphere. Leading this project (and Bova’s combustible cast) is Professor Jason Uhlrich, an experienced political jouster who’s ravenous for a Nobel Prize. Orbiting him we’ve got the mousy Trudy Yost (his assistant astronomer), the handsome Carter McClintock (ravenous for a gold medal in man-tramping), lead technician Grant Simpson (the volatile steroid user), Dr. Kris Cardenas (the nanotechnology expert), and the bewitching Anita Halleck (financier of the International Astronautical Authority, Uhlrich’s competition).
“Character determines destiny,” said Heraclitus, whom Bova quotes at the start Farside; it’s a phrase to perfectly reflect how massive human endeavors can be sidetracked and/or sabotaged by the personalities involved. The narrative leaps to a roaring start when one of the telescope’s mirrors–the size of a football field–cracks in transit to a construction area. Inconsolably furious, Uhlrich fires the head tech responsible (a jerk named Olberman, who never quite rises to true villainy), replacing him with Grant, the next most capable man on site. Uhlrich is also heartbroken; McClintock takes time away from sexually evaluating his coworkers to sway his boss toward a solution involving nanomachines.
Nanotechnology, the detail upon which Bova could pivot from hard science fiction into schlocky Michael Crichton territory, is deployed carefully. We learn that nanomachines are illegal on Earth, but not in Selene, the sovereign nation on the bright side of the moon. And as first citizen Douglas Stavenger says, “Nanomachines pull the oxygen we breathe out of the [loose bedrock]. They manufacture water for us.” In other words, they’re an essential piece of reality.
Grant visits Selene to ask Dr. Cardenas for help with a new mirror. To the Farside staff–unused to working with nanomachines–the idea that they could run amok, eating their base down to a gray sludge, is an Earth-bred nightmare. Cardenas rules this out, explaining that nanomachines are programmed for specific tasks (except when they’re not, and they’re called “disassemblers”). They’re so safe, in fact, that her own body is flush with them; they bolster her immune system, and have been keeping her attractively youthful decades beyond the norm.
Bova turned eighty last year, and his oldest fans will surely find Farside‘s cascade of three page chapters comfortable reading. Thankfully, these quick scenes are packed with gripping scientific description:
[Grant] knew that subatomic particles from from the distant stars were machine-gunning him. His suit protected him from most of them, but there were always some extra-energetic ones that got through and burrowed into the atoms of his body, killing cells or mutating them. He started to feel naked beneath their constant, deadly, invisible rain.
But Bova’s superb dialogue is the real heat beneath this cosmic potboiler. As he positions characters against each other, he keeps them freshly three-dimensional with a constant barrage of new ideas and opinions. Friction hits the reader with nearly every exchange:
“[Grant]’s taking steroids, too,” the doctor admitted grudgingly.
“They improve physical performance. Stamina. Strength.” Her voice went strangely gentle as she added, “Some men use them in place of aphrodisiacs.”
Uhlrich felt his face flush.
The doctor quickly continued, “But Grant isn’t using them that way, I’m sure. He’s taking steroids to help him do his work outside. It isn’t easy, you know, out on the surface stuffed inside one of those hard-shell suits.”
Steepling his fingers again, Uhlrich asked, “If he didn’t have to work on the surface, could he stop taking these medications?”
She thought a moment before replying, “Yes, I suppose so.”
“What kind of an answer is that?”
Yet Uhlrich’s temper doesn’t supernova until more catastrophes occur–one resulting in the death of a technician, and another threatening the Farside observatory itself. Using the moon’s inhospitable landscape, Bova does an excellent job bringing maximum pressure to his cast.
Dr. Cardenas seems to speak for him, however, attempting cool rationale in the face of disaster: “It’s a human problem. Either a fool or a madman planted disassemblers in that shelter. The nanomachines were merely his weapon of choice. It’s exactly the same as if he’d planted a land mine.”
Except you can’t program a land mine to heal anything. Still, Bova’s defense of science in the face of human insanity shines through bright enough–leaving us almost unprepared for the glowing humanist ending.