“New Frontiers: A Collection of Tales About the Past, the Present and the Future,” by Ben Bova (Tor)
At 140, Alexander Alexandrovich Ignatiev is the senior member of Earth’s first manned mision to another star. His crewmates — the ones who aren’t frozen in suspended animation, at least — are a bunch of “kids” in their 60s.
Life-extension technology has enabled humans to live long enough to make the trip into deep space, so far that communication with mission control takes six years one way. It has done nothing, however, to relieve the human penchant for jealousy, self-pity and boredom.
Ignatiev feels all those things in “A Country for Old Men,” one of the 14 short stories in legendary science fiction writer Ben Bova’s “New Frontiers.” The book’s subtitle sums it up: “A Collection of Tales About the Past, the Present and the Future.”
Bova’s latest work of science fiction in his 40-plus-year career weaves together a theme of old (or older) men feeling bested by their younger peers.
In “A Pale Blue Dot,” it’s the astronomer’s son who makes a dramatic discovery instead of his father. Then there’s Ignatiev’s longing for a female crew member knowing she only has eyes for his 60-year-old competitor.
Is that theme of old man versus young a conscious or subconscious addition by Bova, who turns 82 this year? It’s hard to tell. One clue lies in the introduction Bova offers to the story of Ignatiev:
“You know you’re getting old when you start receiving lifetime achievement awards,” Bova writes. “That’s been happening to me with increasing frequency lately, so I know something of how Alexander Alexandrovich Ignatiev feels.”
In some of his harder sci-fi stories, Bova, the technical writer, pits his characters against the computer intelligences running their space ships.
In “Waterbot,” the main human character develops an “Odd Couple”-type friendship with the artificial intelligence keeping him alive as they stake claims to water deposits amid the asteroid belt. He, in turn, keeps the rickety old bucket of bolts running. When the end comes, he’s reluctant to let the computer mind die.
Then there’s Ignatiev, who uses the time he’s not pursuing his crewmate’s affections to study the currents of space (a knowing wink at Bova’s former contemporary Isaac Asimov) through which the ship travels. His life-and-death discovery — and subsequent battle of wits with the ship’s coldly logical navigational computer — powers the bulk of the story and gives Ignatiev a new sense of purpose.
“New Frontiers” also includes some just-for-fun stories: “We’ll Always Have Paris” finds the characters of “Casablanca” picking up their lives after the war. “Inspiration” wonders if H.G. Wells might have given a teenage Albert Einstein the idea about relativity and the flexibility of time. “In Trust” plays with a man’s desire to outlive the disease that threatens to kill him by putting his body and his faith in the Catholic Church. Bova the atheist applies a suitably dark twist at the end.
In this, his 50th book, Bova is clearly hearing time’s winged chariot — or maybe its maneuvering thrusters — at his back.
But these stories remind us that the trip is far from over.