Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Asteroid Wars Series, by Ben Bova

Books 13, 14, 15, and 16 of My Old Man's Challenge.

I got started on this series and had to finish it. It's solid Sci-Fi: spaceships, moonbases, space pirates, space explorers, space miners, but no magical transporters, phasers, torpedoes, warp drives or stuff like that. It isn't set so far into the future of Earth that the culture is totally alien. In fact, except for a reasonable stretch in technological capability, the story could be happening now.

So here's a brief breakdown of each book that hopefully won't give everything away.

The Precipice (Book 1)

Dan Randolph, founder and owner of Astro Corporation, is facing bankruptcy. The greenhouse effect has become a "greenhouse cliff" and the world is going right over it. Earthquakes, megastorms, rising ocean levels and millions of displaced people are threatening to throw civilization into chaos. Randolph is desperate to save his company and wondering what he can do that would help Earth in the process. Martin Humphries, owner of a rival company, offers to partner up with him using an experimental fusion engine that might be powerful enough to make a trip from Earth to the asteroid belt within weeks instead of months or years. Randolph knows Humphries would like nothing better than to take over Astro Corp and sew up a monopoly in the belt so he can price gouge to his heart's content. Randolph begins a corporate chess game trying to keep Humphries at arm's length while saving Astro and helping Earth's shattered industrial capacity at the same time. Humphries, wealthy and dangerously ambitious, shows no qualms about economically, or physically, hurting anyone who gets in his way. By the end, Randolph passes his fight with Humphries on to one of his hotshot pilots, Pancho Lane. Humphries is stopped for the time being, but he just takes a step back and rehashes his schemes.

The Rock Rats (Book 2)

Pancho Lane is no longer a full-time pilot thanks to Randolph's last will and testament. She manages to get a seat on Astro Corp's board, where Humphries also has a seat, and she does her best to stop Humphries as his tries to finagle more shares of Astro in an attempt to take over. The fusion engine Humphries and Randolph developed is powering ships trolling the asteroid belt for minerals and ice crystals to sell to Earth and Selene, the city on Earth's moon. With echoes of the Gold Rush, independent prospectors, and employees of both Astro and Humphries Space Systems, explore asteroid after asteroid, looking for that big lucky strike. Humphries wants it all for himself. He sends his ships out to not only prospect but attack independent ships and Astro ships in an effort to drive everyone else out. One prospector, Lars Fuchs, does his best to bring Humphries underhanded tactics to light. All he wants is a fair playing field. He knows he's just one guy trying to go up against Humphries and all his money, but he does it anyway. Humphries retaliates with mercenaries and hired thugs to tear up Fuch's supply warehouse on Ceres, a large asteroid in the belt where prospectors have built a way station of sorts. Humphries eventually takes everything from Fuchs: his business, his freedom, and his wife. Fuchs ends up an exile drifting from rock to rock, and Humphries continues his schemes to own the belt.

The Silent War (Book 3)

Humphries Space Systems and Astro Corporation go to war. After years of cutthroat competition and a ceasefire, incidents prompted by a third corporation light up the violence in the belt yet again. When Humphries ships are attacked, Astro is blamed; when Astro Corp chairman Pancho Lane is nearly killed as a result of sabotage, she hires retired generals to begin arming Astro ships against Humphries. Humphries' new wife Amanda suffers from spousal abuse and turns to drugs to cope. In a desperate attempt to get back at him, she has frozen zygotes that she and her first husband stored years ago implanted. Humphries think the child is his, but only a few of Amanda's old friends, like Pancho Lane, know the truth. When Amanda dies in childbirth, Pancho feels it's her duty to inform Lars Fuchs. When Lars hears of Amanda's death, his grief pushes him to vengeance against Humphries. When the war finally reaches the moon city of Selene, Douglas Stavenger, a retired adminstrator from one of Selene's founding families, has had enough. He forces the warring parties together to try to wrangle a peaceful arrangement but it's not enough to stop one of Humphries' mercenaries from blowing up a prospector habitat at Ceres in the belt.

The Aftermath (Book 4)

This part of the story seems to be an author afterthought. Only a few characters from the previous three books make an appearance in this book. The rest of the plot revolves around a prospector family who are attacked shortly after the habitat at Ceres is destroyed. In an effort to deflect the maniac mercenary Harbin from blowing them up, Victor Zacharias detaches his ship's command pod from the rest of his freighter (The Syracuse). Harbin follows the pod for awhile leaving The Syracuse to drift to the outer asteroid belt with Victor's wife and two children inside. The reader follows Victor's efforts to figure out a way to find his family again, the efforts of Theo, Angela and Pauline trying to figure out a way to get their ship heading back to Ceres again, and the mission of Dorn f.k.a. Harbin and his sculptress companion in finding the bodies of the many ships that Harbin destroyed.

I enjoyed this series. The characters were human, the technology was practical and based in reality, there was only one reference to alien lifeforms and didn't dominate the story. Parents should know that there are references to piracy, drug use, sex, and profanity, although thankfully nothing was terribly graphic except for one somewhat gory murder scene. Put this series down as PG-13 or so, and talk to the teens who might want to read this about ethics, integrity, and doing what's right in the face of incredible pressure to do otherwise.

The most frustrating thing for me, and maybe this was a good thing, was that the man who was the instigator for most of the ruthlessness in the books, Humphries, never truly got the justice he deserved. His money preserved him. He could pay for the best lawyers, the best security people, the best of everything. He had no compassion, no sympathy, no sense of responsibility to anyone but himself, and never had to face the music. I think in America, we expect the bad guy to at least get put in prison, and if he dies, well, then all the better. The reality is probably closer to what happens to Humphries. If a rich guy wants to get away with something, he probably will. Thankfully I believe in a "final judgment day" so I don't worry too much if a real-life crook gets away in this life.

There was plenty of action without making things look too "Star Wars/Star Trek". There was some white-knuckle escapes and a slow search for redemption for one of the nastier characters. I enjoyed the books.

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