Thursday, 20 August 2009

“Powersat”, Ben Bova

Ben Bova's “Powersat” is an intriguing neither fish nor fowl book. Classified by Bromley libraries as Science Fiction, probably legitimately given the author's background, at heart it is a near future techno-thriller centred on a private enterprise attempt to harness solar energy. Throughout there is the impression that this is a case of a Sci Fi author trying to write a post 9/11 terrorism related thriller – and this reveals a number of cracks. Bova is clearly accomplished in writing the science fiction aspects, the overarching technological vision, the clever cues showing how the present could morph into the future, and the grandeur of harnessing space all work well. He is however less convincing writing about the more earthly issues of terrorism, where somehow it doesn't quite work.

Core character Dan Randolph is a curiosity. As a successful entrepreneur, engineer, and obsessive amontillado enthusiast, has some slightly curious tastes – for such an urbane bon viveur is it really credible that he has never heard of Armagnac? In his personal life he is annoyingly petulant in a teenage like manner with his lovestruck obsessing about his now-US Senator ex. Professionally however he has an air of credibility and his vision has an appealing clarity to it.

The writing does at times frustrate stylistically – early on in the novel I was swearing if Julian Scheer's “rain makes applesauce” phrase was used once more I'd become ill and violent, and the delivery of this phrase is pretty unrelenting. Equally Randolphs's reference everything slightly wrong, from a late starting FBI agent to the IRS to terrorists meddling with his satellite is “double damned”. I'm as much of a swearing enthusiast as the next man, but in such things variety really is the spice of life. In a similar vein some plot lines, such as the environmental protests against Randolph's power generation satellite are left somewhat hanging, and a number of characters, including the appealing FAA investigator, Dr Passeau, are not satisfactorily closed out.

All this notwithstanding as a thriller it works as it should – it preserves tension throughout and genuinely keeps you wondering about how it will resolve itself. The fact that the plot isn't suffused with saccharine happy ever after fates for all concerned reinforces the underlying impact of the book. It moves at an unremitting pace, from the graphic disintegration of a spaceplane and the death of its test pilot in the opening pages to the high drama of the denouement it's the sort of book that's an ideal easy reading companion.

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