- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 9, 2005

Do you think Washington is too hot in the summer? Imagine vacationing on Mercury, where the sun appears three times its normal size (to us) and daytime temperatures top 400 Celsius. Sunscreen, anyone?

Actually, little is left to imagination in Mercury (Tor, $24.95, 320 pages), Ben Bova’s realistic new novel, the latest in his Grand Tour series about human exploration of the solar system. With his gripping portrayal of life on that fiery orb one stop from the sun, Mr. Bova is likely to sell a lot of iced tea this summer, in addition to books.

With a near future setting, the story examines the human obsession with settling scores, irrespective of the passage of time and space. Dante Alexios is not quite what he appears to be. Years earlier, Alexios was called Mance Bracknell, a visionary engineer who led a project to construct a space elevator that would reach thousands of miles into space. But the project was sabotaged and the tower collapsed, killing millions. Bracknell lost everything, even his soulmate and fiancee, Lara, and he was forced into exile at the solar system’s outer reaches. Driven to psychosis by unrelenting guilt and resentment, he arms himself with a plan for revenge.

Plastic surgery allows him to assume a new identity. Now as Dante Alexios, he cleverly offers the promise of fame and fortune to entice his erstwhile antagonists to Mercury, where none suspect the true identity of their host.

There is industrialist Saito Yamagata, whom Alexios suspects had a hand in the sabotage when the space elevator began to cut into his space-shipping business. Yamagata is attracted to Mercury by the promise of wealth. Proximity to the sun means cheap solar power and he dreams of launching satellites in orbit that could collect enough energy to power a fleet of starships.

There is astrobiologist Victor Molina, who comes to Mercury after receiving an anonymous tip there is life imbedded in the desiccated rocks of the burning planet. His yearning for fame surpasses his love for Lara, who had married Molina as a consolation after her former flame’s disaster.

And there is Elliot Danvers, a bishop in the New Morality movement who travels to Mercury to save souls and battle blasphemy. Previously, he had opposed the use of nanotechnology in the space elevator’s construction, calling it an abomination.

When all are present, Alexios springs his diabolical trap on his unsuspecting guests, intent on making them burn on the torrid plains of Mercury as restitution for the hellish agony he believes they unfairly inflicted on him years before.

Followers of the Grand Tour series will jump at the chance to ride with Ben Bova to the next stop on his planetary trek. One may be forgiven for tiring a bit of the author’s portrayal of the hypocritical “New Morality” movement in his now-predictable attack on religion.

But for readers old enough to remember the halcyon era of missions to the moon — and those who are not — the chance to accompany this master story teller on his imaginative voyage to Mercury is worth the price.

Who ever said time flows like a river might not have appreciated the literary talents of science fiction writer Neal Asher. In his latest novel, he presents time flowing most unlike a river — in reverse. Cowl (Tor, $14.95, 304 pages) is a riveting journey of the mind from future to past.

The story opens in an age of a distant tomorrow dominated by opposing races descended from humankind. Like their progenitors, these creatures frequently find occasion to indulge their fondness for warfare. While the victors exult, the vanquished scheme to get even. Traveling back in time, they secrete themselves into earlier eras, waiting for a chance to disrupt the natural progression of history and reverse their misfortune.

Cowl is one such unwelcome visitor from the future. More monster than man, Cowl is the ultimate killer and represents a misbegottten step in human evolution. Even his creators fear the damage he could cause if unleashed to rampage through time. But Cowl escapes, and having learned his lessons well, eludes capture by fleeing into the past. He is accompanied by his pet — a time-traveling, dragon-like “torbeast” — whose scales are shed along their pathway back through time, leaving a trail to lure their pursuers. Anyone who touches one of these scales is suddenly propelled back to a prehistoric age. There Cowl and his cruel beast wait in ambush.

At 15 going on 50, Polly has been forced to live by her wits for too much of her short life. She could benefit from an escape from her life of prostitution and addiction, but an encounter with Cowl is not exactly what she had in mind. Polly wanders in front of the crosshairs of misfortune when she finds one of the torbeast scales that government agents desperately seek in hot pursuit of Cowl. Touching it, the scale locks onto Polly’s forearm and she is powerless to resist as it drags her into the past, closer and closer to a rendezvous with Cowl.

But Polly isn’t alone. Tack, a government clone programmed from birth for assassination, is tasked with taking out Cowl. Tack knows Polly can lead him to Cowl. So he becomes her time-traveling companion and eventually, her protector on the path to an inevitable confrontation with the dreaded killer from the future.

Neal Asher’s “Cowl” renders the old story of time travel new again as the author unwinds the clock of history toward its beginning. If that notion is appealing, pick up a copy and enjoy a summer respite from conventional chronology.

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

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