Ben Bova books are all over the place: second-hand bookstores, libraries, Goodwill among other locations. I haven’t read any Bova titles until now, out of my general avoidance of hard-SF books, or post-1980 books that look they would be hard SF. However, The Trikon Deception (1992) has an intriguing co-author, the astronaut and space mutineer Bill Pogue (1930-2014).
Bill Pogue was part of the final crew aboard the space station Skylab, the first American space station. The demands of their mission, in which every hour of every day was tightly scheduled, were the result of expectations built by previous Skylab crews. The Skylab 4 crew struggled to match the productivity of their predecessors, falling behind schedule and concealing Pogue’s “space sickness” from NASA medical officers. Morale broke after several weeks, and the crew shut off all contact with Ground Control, spending the day watching Earth through the station’s windows. After re-establishing contact and adjusting the workload, the rest of the mission passed without incident. It’s not a dramatic story of labor strife, but it represents the first and only mutiny in the history of space travel.
Bova, of course, has an enormous number of publications to his credit as author and, especially, as editor. Besides TTD, Pogue also has an author credit for the non-fiction How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space?, so I was expecting a decent mutiny and descriptions of bodily functions in zero-G to liven things up.
TTD describes a space station (Trikon Station) jointly managed by a large corporation named Trikon International and a multinational consortium. Besides the man in charge and his cautious love interest (the station’s medical officer), just about every other character is operating by a hidden agenda. Plenty of them start having sex with each other, and subsequently murdering one another, midway through the book, following a long set up period of introductions and threats. However, readers looking for sophisticated characterizations or subtle plot twists are going to be disappointed.
Bova and Pogue portray a deeply cynical picture of international scientific efforts. One Indian-British antagonist has a dark and criminal past, but through some corruption of the senior ranks of Trikon, he has been placed on board the space station as a lead scientist. The Japanese team of scientists have stolen data files from one of the Americans, following instructions from their supervisor. Europeans are shown to be constantly arguing with each other. The American scientists seem to be a jumble of glory-chasers, pretenders and personnel in no psychological condition to be anywhere near a space station. These characterizations are all made unambiguously and with the regular aid of some very tired racial stereotypes. I think every woman in the entire book gets used sexually in some coercive fashion.
The scientists of Trikon, when not pursuing their own agendas, are purportedly looking for a way to reverse an ongoing ecological disaster sweeping the planet – the phytoplankton in the oceans are disappearing, leading to an unbounded accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plausible enough, but why, midway through TTD, does a TV journalist get sent up into the space station?
The action does pick up in the second half, and considerable effort was made to show vivid details of life inside a zero-gravity environment, but the book is much more a shallow techno-thriller than SF. The writing is clear and simple to follow, so when I did finally get interested in the goings-on TTD was a long, easy trip to the end. I’d describe it as undemanding entertainment, professionally written but with a very shallow and stereotyped view of the people that spend their lives in research. 4/10.
I’ve read very little of him, and am unlikely to ever read this one. I’ve seen THX-1138, but that’s hardly relevant here.
One of the complications involved in assessing the work of authors who have to write to the market is how much of what they write reflects their nature, and how much what they think the market wants. All the more complicated when there are two authors, one of whom isn’t a professional writer.
So as to the sexual coercion aspect–does the book seem approving of it? You may have heard, NASA just launched a major anti-harassment crackdown. Houston no doubt has all kinds of problems. Astronauts have not all been scientists, and scientists are by no means always saints.
Did you ever read James Tiptree Jr’s story “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”
One of the saddest stories I ever read, because it’s about men. From the perspective of a woman posing as a man. Who was herself a scientist, liked men–and knew our weaknesses, all too well. Worst of all are the weaknesses that pose as strength.
Nothing against Bova, who has achieved a lot, but in her relatively short career, Alice Sheldon said as much as anybody ever did in that genre. None of it very encouraging. Whether it was about men or women.
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I don’t think the book seemed approving of all the sexual coercion, no – it was all done to add to the plot and make sure we knew the space station was teeming with villains. I know we had our differences about Crystal in Westlake’s “The Handle,” but there’s no room for doubt this time. The astronaut who saves the day at the end is the only one with a romantic relationship that’s not also some lopsided power relationship.
There were also a lot of drugs used to advance the plot, but the book didn’t really have a message about drugs either. They were essentially chemical weapons for the main villain, and a way to give another character a mysterious back-story.
The Trikon Deception was more about how very few people are actually qualified to go into orbit and work in that environment, and that neither private corporations nor non-NASA government programs should be in charge of who gets sent out to a space station. Too bad everything wrapped around this message was so cliche, embarrassingly so in many cases.
I read the Tiptree story over a year ago and remember finding it heavy-handed. I probably missed some of the satire, and should revisit it someday. She’s an interesting author.
There is no more interesting author. Her fiction, or her life. If she’d written more, I’d consider doing a blog about her. That story’s probably not the best to start with, because if you don’t know more about her, it reads like androphobia, but that’s never her point. She did not hate men. She found it almost easier to write from the POV of a man, which was why her fiction written after Tiptree was outed as a woman was, on the whole, less impressive, though she wrote some powerful disturbing stuff after that happened.
Le Guin, who had corresponded with her as Tiptree, was both astonished and delighted when she learned–I think she later referred to her as a Jane in the Box.
A spy in the enemy camp, but a deeply sympathetic one. She knows it’s hard to be male. She’s trying to make us see how the other half lives–always a bit afraid of us. And with good reason.
I’m always a bit haunted by the central point of the story–they can see men were evolutionarily necessary to the species, their strength, their violence–but then, as one of them says, most of the time what they were defending women from was other men.
I never feel hated, reading her. I feel understood. It’s–disquieting.
Her real hatred was for herself.
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As for the book at hand, it sounds like a hybrid. A mystery story set in space. To be sure, SF has frequently dabbled in detective fiction. The futuristic angle is mainly limited to it being a corporate space station, which doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. The techie magazines were, I recall, very high on the prospect of privatized space travel. For obvious reasons, it’s not a been workable concept right now, except for launching satellites. I suppose it might get a boost now that they’re privatizing everything–for all the wrong reasons.
Don’t fiction writers kind of have to deal with bad behavior?
I can’t judge this book without reading it, and I’m not interested in doing so, but in general–isn’t one of the mission statements of fiction to show the dark side of humanity? Including human sexuality. If it’s not sanctioning that behavior, normalizing it, I don’t see a problem. Neither do most people, going by what’s on television these days.
Maybe the point is that corporate space exploration (and exploitation) would have the wrong values, but in fact we’ve seen that corporations respond faster to allegations of sexual misconduct, because they have to worry about their public images. It is a fact that interpersonal relations would be a major problem in that kind of setting. As Mr. Pogue could attest.
Obviously the point from the publisher’s POV is that people like to read about this kind of thing. And since there’s no aliens, no sentient robots, no time travel, no clones, no distant exotic worlds, nothing except trained people trapped together in orbit, what the hell else are they going to write about?
It’s not what I want to read about, but that’s partly because I’m dubious Ben Bova and a retired astronaut are going to be writing first-rate crime fiction. 😉
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