Sunday, November 11, 2001

While planets have starred in Ben Bova’s continuing series on exploration of the solar system, rocks loom large in the scheme of his new novel, The Precipice (Tor, $25.95, 349 pages). The rocks that comprise the Asteroid Belt may be so much space junk to some, but Mr. Bova has mined this faraway phenomenon in an entertaining tale of survival and suspense.
Set in the near future, the story portrays a world in which environmental equilibrium has gone over a cliff, pushed by humanity’s refusal to curb the production of greenhouse gases. Ensuing global warming has triggered an incessant series of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, killing millions and threatening the existence of billions. The world needs an injection of life-saving resources to replenish those ravaged by the global catastrophe. What in the world can be done?
Nothing, but beyond the bounds of Earth lies a distant hope. The Asteroid Belt is out there beyond the orbit of Mars, loaded with precious metals, minerals and even water. Super-industrialist Dan Randolph, owner of Astro Manufacturing, has the mining and manufacturing assets to turn rocks into riches. But how to reach them? Rival tycoon Martin Humphries sees an opportunity: He has blueprints for a new fusion propulsion system and will build it for a price.
Neither man is a Boy Scout, but Randolph is compelled to reach the asteroids by concern for his fellow man. Humphries, on the other hand, could care less; his goal is control of his rival’s company, unimaginable wealth and ultimately dominion over the entire solar system.
Conflicting interests are the ingredients of a life-and-death struggle in “The Precipice.” At the same time, Mr. Bova launches the “asteroid wars,” a portent for a forthcoming sci-fi series. Rock on, Ben.

Australian Sean McMullen focuses his imagination on an earthly apocalypse in his newest novel, Eyes of the Calculor (Tor, $27.95, 592 pages).
It is a chilling picture of an Earth 2,000 years after it has been shattered by nuclear war. Civilization has reverted to a pre-industrial level no electricity and few internal combustion engines. Powerful librarians control access to knowledge of science and technology, lest humanity’s bloodlust unleash its destructive capabilities once again.
The siren call of a religious prophetess echoes across “Australica,” the land down under. It signals a new wave of religious fervor that inevitably results in repressive rule. Into that ominous environment flies American Princess Samondel aboard her diesel-powered “sailwing,” a primitive model of airplane that has survived the contemporary Luddite trend.
She comes on a trade mission, but her plans change abruptly when she is shot down by religious fanatics. She is forced into the role of undercover diplomat and works for an alliance with moderates who can help her pacify the continent. The price of failure: all-out war between Australica and America.
Meanwhile, the librarians play their last card in an attempt to compute an alternative to war: the construction of a calculator that operates not with electronic circuit boards, but with a vast network of humans performing calculations on abacuses the “Calculor.”
Mr. McMullen’s latest work succeeds in portraying the uneasy paradox of a retrograde future. For those craving science fiction with a gothic flavor, this one will satisfy.

Danger erupts from the deep in Maelstrom (Tor, $23.95, 378 pages), a hard-edged disaster novel by Peter Watts about malevolent microbes.
Set in the near future, the story revolves around one Lenie Clarke, who makes a living tending an undersea thermal power station perched at the lip of a deep rift in the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Lenie has been fitted with biotech gills that allow her to live underwater in relative comfort. A deadly prehistoric disease has been discovered living in the scalding water boiling up from the rift, one that could wipe out human life if it escaped its watery habitat.
Company officials quickly face a painful dilemma: Risk an outbreak of the deadly organism or consign it to a watery tomb together with the unfortunate employees who have already been exposed. A secret, underwater nuclear strike results, catching Lenie and her workmates by surprise. Nothing personal, just one of those necessities.
But Lenie has the dubious fortune to survive the blast. Of course no one comes to rescue her, so she does what survivors do: She looks for help. She walks, 300 kilometers, along the ocean floor. When she emerges from the sea in the Pacific Northwest, she has developed a major rage and plans for revenge. She also carries the deadly disease that can wipe out the human race.
Mr. Watts demands full immersion into his imaginative world from page one of “Maelstrom.” Fast-paced narrative and invented words can bewilder, but bursts of background information will orient the careful reader. Are you willing to take the plunge?

For those disinclined to leap into the outlandish, there is the option of staying close to the familiar environs of Star Trek. The newest novel in this ever-evolving sci-fi series is Enterprise: Broken Bow (Pocket Books, $19.95, 232 pages), by Diane Carey.
The book is written as a prequel to the original series. It is set in the mid-22nd century 100 years before the age of the venerable starship captain, James T. Kirk, Spock and their quirky crew. The age of interstellar travel and “warp” technology is in its infancy. Jonathan Archer, captain of the first starship Enterprise, is commissioned to lead the inaugural human expedition into the far reaches of the universe.
The destination is the home planet of the Klingons, those familiar, alien villains who threaten and harass later generations of star travelers. The mission is to return a shipwrecked Klingon warrior to his home and make peace with his agitated superiors. There is one problem: The Klingon disappears from the starship during transit. Archer discovers just how expansive the universe is as he tracks his lost charge across light years of space.
This Star Trek prequel skillfully blends a new tale with the old. Die-hard Trekkies will know which is which.

Frank Perley is articles editor for the Commentary section of The Washington Times.

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