Dr. Ben Bova passed away on Sunday, November 29, 2020 from COVID-19 related pneumonia and a stroke. Bova did a great many things in his life—he was a journalist, a technical writer, an editor, a teacher, and more—but likely will be remembered by the general public most often and most fondly for his hard science fiction stories and for his editorial stewardship of flagship magazines Analog (1972-1978) and Omni (1978-1982).
I won’t spend much time eulogizing the man, because I did not know him and those who did already performed the task powerfully and articulately. Instead, I want to explore a few examples of Bova’s work from our collections and his belief in hard science fiction (referred to by Bova as “real science fiction”) as a serious means of grappling with societal issues. Bova once explained “real science fiction” in a column he wrote for the Naples Daily News:
When I say “real science fiction,” I mean stories based solidly on known scientific facts. The writer is free to extrapolate from the known and project into the future, of course. The writer is free to invent anything he or she wants to – as long as nobody can prove that it’s wrong.
Thus science-fiction stories can deal with flights to the stars, or human immortality, a world government, settlements on other worlds. All of these things are possibilities of the future.
Things like mobile phones, earbud headphones, and the internet on which you’re reading this once existed only in the fantastic worlds of the pulp magazines but now are not only real but commonplace. Bova’s own work predicted solar-powered satellites, the space race of the 1960s, human cloning, virtual reality, and even the Strategic Defense Initiative, among other trends and events.
Because hard science fiction hews closely to contemporary scientific knowledge while building alternative worlds and surrogate solutions to modern problems and extrapolated concerns, and because Bova was born into the Great Depression, grew up during World War II, and became an adult during the Cold War, many of his stories explore various scenarios in which, and the methods by which, societal power is concentrated and dispersed. Below are a few examples of such stories from Bova’s substantial ouvre.
The Dueling Machine (1969)
In this book, Bova predicts both virtual reality and the internet. The titular Dueling Machine around which the plot is centered allows aggrieved individuals to enter an artificial arena through networked virtual reality setups, combat one another according to an agreed upon set of rules, and leave the experience unscathed in the end, win or lose. The machine has ushered in a new era of peace – one that allows mankind to indulge in its baser instincts without true injury. That is, until someone discovers a way to use this means of peace to kill.
What better way than this machine to avoid the horrors of war experienced in the 1930s and 40s and under the threat of which many lived during the Cold War years thereafter? And how terrifying might it have been in that context to consider the very mechanism of that tenuous peace being seized by those who seek war?
Millennium is set in 1999 on the moon base Selene. Both the American and Russian inhabitants of Selene call themselves “Luniks” and the two communities have a good working relationship. On Earth, however, the Americans and Russians are careening toward nuclear war and both sides try to pull Selene into the conflict. Instead, the American and Russian leaders on the moon proclaim the independent nation of Selene and seize control of the orbiting stations that control the American and Soviet defense satellites.
Years before the Strategic Defense Initiative (nicknamed by many “Star Wars”) of the Reagan administration, Bova predicted the use of satellites as a safeguard against ballistic missiles and arguably, how that technology would affect the nuclear stalemate between the USSR and America.
Test of Fire (1982)
This re-write of Bova’s 1973 When the Sky Burned grapples very explicitly with the most feared result of the Cold War tensions of the time. The story takes place after a giant solar flare wipes out the populations of Europe, Asia, and Africa and the USSR destroys much of North America in what it mistakenly believes to be retaliation. The last bastion of civilization as we know it exists on the Moon in a lunar base that needs fuel from the now savage Earth.
To explore the possible politics and societal constructs of post-annihilation humanity, Bova anchors the story around the family at the center of the lunar base’s leadership, a group whose motives are often in conflict and whose moral failings are many, as they seek what they need on Earth.
Ben Bova’s work demonstrates how deeply he cared about the global community, and how carefully he marked its failings and successes. He married these observations with his belief in “real science fiction” as a predictive and at its best prescriptive force in society, to create stories both intriguing and instructive. Here, I will leave you with Bova’s own simple description of “what could be”:
If our political leaders had been reading science fiction, we might have been spared the Cold War, the energy crises, the failures of public education and many of the other problems that now seem intractable because we were not prepared to deal with them when they arose.
We could be living in a world that is powered by solar and nuclear energy, drawing our raw materials from the moon and asteroids, moving much of our industrial base into orbit and allowing our home world to become a clean, green residential area.
But very few of us read enough science fiction to learn how to look into the future and see the possibilities of tomorrow, both the good and the bad. Certainly our political leaders are constantly surprised by each new crisis. They don’t look into the future any farther than the next election day.
Science fiction, at its best, is an experimental laboratory where you can test new ideas to see how they might affect people and whole societies. To my mind, it should be required reading for everyone.
Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives owns as part of the William J. Heron Speculative Fiction Collection thousands of novels and roughly 4,500 issues from over 200 titles of British, Australian, and primarily American pulp magazines, dating from the 1910s through the 1980s.