reviewed by Zeke Teflon
“Novel, n. A short story padded . . .” –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Perhaps the most annoying things in fiction are smart characters saying and doing dumb things, and failing to reach obvious conclusions. The only reason Ben Bova’s recent novel, New Earth, reaches nearly 400 pages is precisely because of these things.
The tale revolves around a small expedition sent to investigate an Earth-like planet orbiting Sirius–yes, Sirius. Current estimates place the age of Sirius at only 300 to 400 million years. It’s a bright, massive, spectral class A star emitting strongly in the ultraviolet, and it has a white dwarf companion orbiting it in a highly elliptical orbit; at periastron (the point at which an orbiting body is nearest to a star), the dwarf is only about eight astronomical units from Sirius (less than the distance of Saturn from the sun). This makes the existence of a planet in Sirius’ “Goldilocks zone” an impossibility. Then, there’s the matter of life arising on such a planet, let alone a full-blown, Earth-like ecosphere. On Earth, it took the better part of a billion years for the simplest one-celled organisms to arise, and the first plants and animals didn’t appear for nearly four billion years. One would think this would arouse strong suspicions on the part of the novel’s scientific establishment on Earth, and of the scientists sent to explore the new planet. That suspicion is there in the story, but it’s very muted.
Once at New Earth, the expedition discovers that the planet not only has a fully developed Earth-like ecosphere, but is inhabited by friendly humans, genetically indistinguishable from Earth humans, who tell them the carefully worded exact truth in reply to questions. This is the point at which New Earth becomes really irritating, because the expedition scientists fail to realize they’re receiving incomplete information, and fail (for months!) to ask even the most obvious follow-up questions. Then, more than halfway through the narrative, they are shocked, shocked to discover that the planet is artificial.
Beyond that, the characters, dialogue, and the story itself are all flat. The characters, including the primary character, Jordan, are ciphers; none of them have any complexity or passion. And most of the expedition members are little more than names attached to functions.
The dialogue is equally insipid. Conflict drives good dialogue, and there’s very little conflict in New Earth.
As for the story itself, the entire book revolves around the question of why New Earth is there. And it takes a remarkably long time to answer that question. The reason for the book’s length is that the supposedly smart expedition members act very stupidly for an agonizing number of pages.
To put this another way, New Earth isn’t a conflict-driven drama. Rather, it’s a puzzle piece. And while puzzles can work well as short stories, they rarely if ever work well as novels.
New Earth isn’t a terrible book. It’s just not much of a book. It’s a prime example of the bloated puzzles sci-fi publishers all too often palm off as novels.
* * *
Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.