What is vanilla? It is a flavor of ice cream, a fall back when all else fails, and a dependable solution when nothing else is available. Ben Bova’s 2006 Titan is vanilla. Possessing not a scoop of bubble gum or dollop of tiramisu, the 2006 novel is Silver Age science fiction published in the 21 st century. Its characters, plotting, and MO stuck in a time warp, this novel, part of Bova’s Grand Tour series, defines the meaning of ‘average genre production’.
I normally reserve this paragraph for plot synopsis. However, given that back cover copy kills two birds with one stone, I’m going to forego routine and quote it. Titan’s teaser is as follows:
Titan Alpha has landed: the most complex man-made object to reach Saturn’s largest moon. The ten thousand men and women of Habitat Goddard are once more at the frontier of space.
From their huge, artificial paradise hanging in orbit above Saturn, some of them dream of landing on Titan’s surface. Others will do anything to prevent such a landing. And yet others have darker, secret plans.
But almost immediately, Titan Alpha goes silent. And minor, inexplicable faults start to affect Goddard. Is there a basic design flaw that could threaten the lives of everyone on board? Or has one of the many malcontents exiled to space decided to sabotage the probe or even the whole expedition?
Yes, you can see the hints: it’s probably another one of those stories. You guess it will have melodramatic suspense as the story digs deeper into the conspiracy via contrived character actions. There may be a lot of techno-talk regarding the lander and those “inexplicable faults’. And you think the climax will be a moment when the fate of those ten thousand hangs in the balance of some dramatic action required on the part of a hero or two. The novel doesn’t disappoint; it is precisely these things, no more no less.
Thus, when it comes to light entertainment, Titan is full to the brim. Bova squeezing everything he can from cardboard characters, their world, the tech supporting it, and the conflict surrounding exploration of Saturn’s rings and the eponymous satellite are all a fan of space opera dipped in science could ask for. Everything is explained to the reader, the moral buttons are big and obvious, and the techno-action is full on. Bova part of sci-fi for more than two generations, that put-away-the-brain space opera you are looking for may just be this one.
Titan lacking motivation behind the words, content is displayed on the surface. All the right parts and pieces exist, and indeed they are assembled into a story. Mostly this stems from archetypal characters and their expression of Important Plot Info rather than actual human sentiment in the dialogue. Representations rather than realistic models, the following quote identifies the gap:
“Power supply isn’t my responsibility.’ Timoshenko said curtly. ‘Exterior maintenance doesn’t include the power generators.’
Aaronson frowned as he ran his hand through his dirty-blonde hair. ‘Our primary source of power is the photovoltaics, which depend on solar mirrors. Those mirrors have been performing erratically—‘
‘Minor fluctuations.’ Timoshenko snapped. ‘Nothing that could have caused a major outage. The problem is internal, not external.’
‘We don’t know what the problem is,’ Aaronson said, his round jowly face reddening.
‘You don’t know?’ Eberly snarled. ‘It’s been more than five hours since it happened and you still don’t know what caused the breakdown?’
‘It only lasted less than a minute. And the back-ups came on when they were needed,’ Aaronson replied. ‘We’re tracking down the fault,’ he added almost sullenly. (235)
If the reader doesn’t notice the melodrama in this dialogue, particularly the snapping, snarling, sullen speech tags, then Titan may be enjoyable reading. Bova taking his time (i.e. imparting no sense of urgency to the narrative), he explains technical matters 1-2-3 and keeps character interaction and behavior simple to the point of overt lest anyone get lost. When space opera is the sub-genre being aimed at, it’s difficult to expect more. It’s therefore difficult to fault Bova for striking the target. But when one doesn’t attempt something ambitious they must pay the price…
Titan is run of the mill science fiction. Cardboard characters wandering a setting intended to maximize technical and operatic twists and turns, the novel makes for good entry level science fiction—much like Alastair Reynolds, Paul McAuley, and John Scalzi. Though technically detailed, the operatic elements distance the story from humanity, and accordingly will leave something desired for those who are looking for complexity in the genre. Bova doing everything right yet lacking panache and the desire to break fresh ground, the novel is comfort food via the Silver Age. (At one point a character actually utters the sentiment “Jumping jeeps!”) Thus, when you go looking for sci-fi ice cream, Titan is your vanilla.