Survival is the first novel by Ben Bova that I have finished. Our library had Survival in the new book section, I was looking for something different and decided to try Bova again. I’m glad I did because Survival is a decent read.
I liked the main character, Alexander Ignatiev. He is a crotchety older man we meet first on a short trip to a close-by star. He discovers their ship will not be able to gather enough hydrogen to power the life support systems and manages to mousetrap the AI running the ship into changing course. We meet Ignatiev again in the main story when he leads a group of 2000 scientists on a mission to save a machine civilization 2000 light years away.
Ignatiev is interesting and likable, with a quick sense of humor and a bit of cynicism. The other characters are sketchier and the machine civilization is flat, without personality.
I got very tired reading how dedicated the scientists are to their research, to the point where they are perfectly happy being fobbed off with a well-equipped lab when they could be digging into the intricacies of the machine civilization. This felt off, even allowing for the single-mindedness one needs to be a world class researcher.
Plot and Story Telling
The first part of the novel, the trip to Gliese 581, doesn’t do anything except set up Ignatiev as the man to watch. It doesn’t fit into the rest of the story and feels like a novella the author decided to graft onto his main narrative.
The other part that I find extraordinarily jarring, unbelievable, is the machine civilization’s response to the human mission. Initially the machines intend to trap the people on their planet, then let them die in the death wave, but somehow at the end, Ignatiev manages to convince them that it would be more fruitful, more interesting, to cooperate with humans and the Predecessors to save and unite as many civilizations as possible.
We are supposed to believe that the machines, initially ambivalent about the humans, then became implacable, only to then decide, oh yeah, let’s band together. Sorry, I don’t believe it.
I don’t believe in the whole machine civilization, sentient artificial intelligence world building either, but Bova tells the story well enough that I could nod and go on.
Bova writes quite well and puts in enough in-fighting and political jockeying to give the story some meat and make the people more believable. He uses dialogue and introspection to advance the story and keep the pace moving.
Jack McDevitt wrote several novels using the theme of galactic omega clouds (death weapons or art objects, depending on your point of view) that threaten all civilizations. In his novels the weapons are attracted to straight lines and right angles and ruthlessly attack any they come upon. Bova’s gamma death wave reminded me of McDevitt’s omega clouds – and reminded me how much I liked McDevitt’s novels.
Survival is a decent read albeit a fast read. If you have a spare evening give it a shot.