‘Leviathans of Jupiter’ is the follow-on novel from Ben Bova’s ‘Jupiter’. In that novel scientist Grant Archer led a team to research life-forms in Jupiter’s global ocean, hypothesised by the author to exist under the cloud belts. A malfunctioning and sinking submersible was rescued by a Jovian denizen of the deep, a huge Leviathan. Grant was convinced of their intelligence, but no-one seemed to believe him. Now, twenty five years later, Archer is director of the Jupiter orbital station Gold. Generations of automated probes have surveilled the ocean with ambiguous results. Grant has concluded that only a manned revisit can settle the question of the Leviathans’ intelligence once and for all. He has been running a secret skunk works project to build a state-of-the-art manned submersible, the Faraday, and as the story starts, it’s finally ready to deploy.
Meanwhile the submersible’s crew are making their way via fusion ship from the asteroid belt and Earth. We have shapely heroine Deirdre, an SF poster-girl of brains, beauty and engaging diffidence; Dorn, a half-human cyborg atoning for a mercenary past; submersible-designer Max Yeager, leering and bumptious but behind the facade no danger to flies or any other form of life and callow communications scientist Andy Corvus, the infeasible male love-interest. Every story must have a villain of course: enter Katherine Westfall, wealthy widow and fellow member (with Grant Archer) of the International Astronautical Authority’s governing council. Ms. Westfall is a pantomime antagonist, eager for power as an antidote to her chronic insecurity. Her aim is chairmanship of the IAA governing council … only then will she be secure. To attain this implausible bureaucratic safe-ground, she is prepared to bribe, threaten and kill. And her chief rival for the position is Dr Grant Archer.
En route to Jupiter Ms. Westfall’s minion manages to infect Deirdre with a genetically-engineered rabies virus. Ha ha! Power over her! Now she will be my spy! All too slowly we arrive at the Jupiter Gold Station where Ms. Westfall continues her policy of suborning and sabotage. The submersible Faraday duly departs for Jupiter’s ocean – at this stage we have already been told way too much about breathing perfluorocarbon – and we get to monitor communication attempts from both sides: the crew of Faraday and the herd of floating Leviathans. However, Ms. Westfall has a plan to put an end to all that!
Ben Bova is a traditionalist-artisan of old-school SF. In this young-adult novel, the characters exist mainly to drive the plot forwards, motivations are simple, clichés are tired and anecdotes wearily-familiar (you will recall the ones about Faraday: ‘what use is a baby?”, ‘One day you’ll tax it.’). Shallow characterisation restricts the author’s ability to ‘show’ so there’s far too much ‘tell’ . Most cringe-inducing are the ‘romantic’ relationships: Bova has decided that his (non-cyborg) heroes have to find mates as they ride into the glorious Jovian sunset; the resulting soppiness is both gratuitous and nausea-inducing. The science mostly stays just inside the bounds of the possible although Darwin would have been puzzled as to how a herd of bovine Leviathans could have evolved human-level intelligence while their much more alert predators are simply dismissed as dangerous vermin.
To be fair, there were one or two points in this novel where the tedium-level subsided somewhat and I was half-interested in exactly how the predictable plot would work itself out. If you have read Ben Bova before and you liked it then be reassured that there’s much, much more of the same here.