by Ben Bova
Ben Bova seems intent on writing up the complete exploration of the planets in the solar system. So far, Earth, the Moon, Mars and Venus have all captured the attention of his word processor. In his latest outing, Bova has set his sights on the King of Planets, Jupiter. However, Jupiter merely provides a setting for Bova's novel. The primary focus is on the space station Gold in orbit around the giant planet.
In a world which is dominated by a worldwide conservative religious movement, science is tolerated, but subordinate to the will of the local religious zealots. Grant Archer is the son of a minister and a graduate student studying astrophysics. In return for his scholarship, Grant has agreed to do four years of community service, expecting to be sent to the farside observatory, where he'll be able to work on his dissertation. Instead, he finds himself working as a janitor and a spy in orbit around Jupiter.
On Gold station, Grant discovers that there is a mystery about the station's purpose and an unsanctioned expedition into Jupiter's atmosphere which may have discovered life. Grant tries to discover what is going on, not because he has agreed to spy for the New Morality, but rather because he is curious by nature. Eventually, he begins to discover what he wants to know and his importance to the mission grows.
Bova's portrayal of a religious society seems weak. He places religious zealots on one side and scientific zealots on the other, with no doubt which of the two types of zealots he prefers. In the middle is Grant, who supposedly has been raised to believe in the religious aspects of his society, but he comes across as someone who performs the necessary religious acts without any conviction behind them, even as he defends his religion to everyone who will listen.
The characters Grant interacts with on the Gold don't really seem to be fully fleshed out. Lane O'Hara is a biologist whose purpose seems to be to raise the testosterone levels of the men on the station while Egon Karlstad is more than willing to fantasize about her. The only person who seems to be more officious than station director Wo is Christel Krebs, the leader of the expedition into Jupiter's atmosphere. A subplot concerning a gorilla on the spacestation is made to fit into the general scenario, but doesn't really go anywhere. The only character who is really interesting, and could probably have carried the book as the main character, is "Zeb" Muzorawa, a Sudanese scientist who is not what he appears and takes Grant under his wing.
The exploration of Jupiter should have been the focus of the novel, but even that is not particularly strong. Bova appears interested in the fluid dynamics in Jupiter's atmosphere, but otherwise, the Jupiter portion of the novel surrounds the possible existence of life forms in the atmosphere. While it is interesting speculation, it doesn't seem to fit the hard science feel Bova has given to the novel.
While Bova presents several interesting ideas in Jupiter, his characters and plot are nowhere near as intriguing. Jupiter can't even be said to be a novel of ideas, because there are few of those and many are based on unsubstantiated theories rather than recent scientific research. Bova's Mars and Return to Mars offer more interesting and realistic views of the exploration of the solar system.