- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

From a distance, a sparkling sash of diamonds seems to adorn its midriff, tempting those who would approach. On closer inspection, the sparkles are not diamonds, but something else equally alluring and far more dangerous. The secret of the ringed planet’s magnificent belt, as conceived by master science fiction novelist Ben Bova, awaits readers of his newest work, Saturn (Tor, $24.95, 384 pages).

The setting of the latest installment in Mr. Bova’s solar system-spanning “Grand Tour” series is familiar to fans who will recall themes from his earlier works: Life on Earth in the near-future has taken a turn for the worse. Massive coastal flooding triggered by global warming has destabilized world order. A yearning for safety has spawned the emergence of a repressive religious organization called the New Morality, which rules the entire planet with an iron grip.

The Holy Disciples, members of a fundamentalist splinter group, have funded the construction of a space colony to carry explorers to Saturn in order to begin a new, ostensibly freer, society. The Goddard, a huge spinning cylinder, sets out on a three-year journey to the ringed planet with some 10,000 pioneers, among them scientists, adventure seekers, dissidents, and others with a secret agenda.

Among the spacefarers is Capt. James Wilmot, commissioned by the sponsors to administer the colony until it reaches Saturn orbit, then turn over control to an elected government. An anthropologist, Wilmot views the mission as a grand sociological experiment, but overlooks small acts of sabotage occurring right beneath his nose.

There is Malcolm Eberly, who served jail time for embezzlement on Earth before being recruited by the religious order to subvert the colony from within and orchestrate a political coup by fellow zealots. What his sponsors do not realize is that their man is more than a little ambitious and has plans of his own.

Conveniently, Eberly’s bosses have arranged for him to run the personnel office for the colony. That means he has access to each member’s confidential file. Forearmed with information, he begins to assemble a cadre of loyalists who will orchestrate a takeover at the appropriate time.

And there is Holly Lane, a young adventurer looking for a chance to escape from the orbit of an overprotective older sister. Holly is Eberly’s admiring assistant in personnel and she unwittingly aids his scheme — at first. But murder disrupts the colony. The victim is Holly’s friend, the wise old professor Don Diego, who has been around long enough to recognize deceit. She discovers that the culprit is Eberly’s head of security, the ruthless Col. Kananga.

Now Holly’s life is in danger as Eberly attempts to silence her before his subversive power plot comes to light. On the run, she hides in the warren of underground maintenance tunnels that crisscross the habitat.

Meanwhile, there are others who have been secreted on board by Holly’s superindustrialist sister to watch her back: Kris Cardenas, a nanotechnology scientist, and big-time space stuntman, Manuel Gaeta. But blissfully unaware of Holly’s danger, Cardenas assists Gaeta in his quest to fly through Saturn’s sparkling rings. There he makes a momentous discovery about their glittery composition. Any guesses? Serendipity must prevail if Gaeta is to survive his close encounter with the rings and return to the Goddard in time to save Holly from the cruel Kananga.

“Saturn” delivers what fans have come to expect of Mr. Bova’s ongoing “Grand Tour” series of novels about exploration of the solar system: science, adventure and suspense. His underlying message? Human beings, for all their imperfections, are driven by their irrepressible curiosity to remarkable achievement. That message is likely to reappear in future installments as the author completes his journey of the imagination to the farthest reaches of our little corner of the universe.

• • •

Off the shelf of the offbeat comes a volume with equal parts science fiction, fantasy and Chinese mythology, The City Trilogy (Columbia University Press, $27.50, 408 pages), from the father of sci-fi in Taiwan, Chang Hsi-kuo.

In “Five Jade Disks,” the first book of the trilogy, Mr. Chang introduces the hapless people of Sunlon City, frequent victims of civil war and oppression from foreign invaders on the distant planet Huhui. The city has just been defeated by the imperialistic Shan empire and subjected to harsh rule.

A fledgling alliance of Huhui rebels emerge to fight for independence. A young woman , Miss Qi, becomes the alliance’s unlikely leader on the merit of her unshakable commitment to the cause of freedom. Backed by the loyal Green Snake Brotherhood, Miss Qi discovers that the ancient Cult of the Bronze Statue may hold the key to defeating the Shan and restoring her city’s lost heritage.

The trilogy continues with “Defenders of the Dragon City,” in which the alliance succeeds in forcing the Shan from Sunlon City. The invaders turn their weapons on other inhabitants of Huhui, triggering an enlargement of the alliance to include all indigenous races threatened by the common enemy.

The saga concludes in “Tale of a Feather,” which chronicles the final battle for Sunlon City. The ensuing devastation allows for the rise from within of a ruthless dictator. With doom looming on every front, Miss Qi seeks desparately to unravel the secret of the mysterious cult that could provide their deliverance.

“The City Trilogy” is not simply science fiction per se, but an amalgam of sci-fi and Chinese mythology. For readers who can appreciate the integration of old and new images in one narrative, or simply have an interest in Chinese literature, this book is a worthwhile investment.

• • •

A chilling tale of the return of the Ice Age may prove to be a cool remedy for the steamy heat of summer. Mitchell Smith’s Kingdom River (Forge, $25.95, 416 pages) presents a post-apocalyptic vision of a struggle for survival as North America shivers under a thick layer of ice, from coast to coast and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Modern civilization has disintegrated into tribes that battle each other for claim to the little remaining arable land. Sam Monroe is the reluctant leader of the army of North-Map Mexico and his people occupy a strip of land that was formerly northern Mexico. In one direction lies the larger kingdom of the River Kingdom, ruled by Queen Joan. In the other lies the threatening presence of the Khanate nomads, led by the ruthless Toghrul Khan.

Sam knows his people face annihilation at the hands of the Khan, unless he finds a protector. With trepidation, he agrees to marry Queen Joan’s daughter, Princess Rachel, and form an alliance against the Khan. With help from the queen’s secure island capital in the midst of the Mississippi River, Sam hopes that his little state can survive the inevitable onslaught from the khan’s murderous hordes.

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


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