THE ROCK RATS
by Ben Bova
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Despite the setting in the Asteroid Belt and on the Moon, The Rock Rats, book two of Ben Bova's "Asteroid Wars" series is, in fact, a western set in space. On the one hand, representing unmitigated corporate greed is Martin Humphries of Humphries Space Systems. His rival, in both business and love, is Lars Fuchs, former graduate student turned independent miner on the far frontier of the asteroid belt, representing the independent spirit of explorers and the small businessman.
The Rock Rats falls immediately after the end of The Precipice and several years before Venus, which features the eventual end of the Humphries-Fuchs rivalry. Set in Bova's ever expanding "Grand Tour" series which seems to be targeting all of the planets in the solar system, the novel works best if the reader has knowledge of some of the other books, although reading Venus will provide spoilers for some of the plot in The Rock Rats.
Martin Humphries, whose character shows no redeeming qualities aside from lust (for wealth, power, sex, and Amanda Fuchs, Lars Fuchs's wife) spend the entire novel trying to destroy Lars Fuchs and his works in the asteroid belt while also trying to gain control of the independent asteroid prospectors and Fuchs's wife. Fuchs responds with a focused hatred of Humphries and a desire for justice against Fuchs which blinds him to everything else, including his own descent to Humphries own level. Caught in the middle is Amanda Cunningham Fuchs, who feels the physical distance between Humphries on the Moon and herself in the asteroid belt makes her safe. At the same time, she sees Fuchs's descent.
Amanda's character is the weak point in The Rock Rats for anyone who has read The Precipice. In the earlier book, Bova introduces Amanda as an intelligent and capable astronaut pilot who connected with Fuchs in part to escape Humphries, but also because Fuchs saw her for her intelligence and personality rather than her drop dead gorgeous appearance. In The Rock Rats, Fuchs treats her more like a trophy wife than a life partner. While Amanda finds other problems with her relationship with Fuchs, she fails to see this. Furthermore, throughout both novels, Amanda was characterized as having too great a self esteem to allow herself the fate which she eventually succumbs to.
Neither Humphries or Fuchs are sympathetic characters, which makes it difficult for the reader to connect to the novel in a personal way. Instead, Bova presents a story which the reader wants to retain a distance from because the protagonist and antagonist are both loathsome in their own ways, intentions and goals aside. Even when theoretically neutral parties are brought into the picture, their actions leave a bad taste in the reader's mouth. The Rock Rats is a particularly depressing and pessimistic picture of the future of mankind in space.
The Rock Rats does not appear to be the final volume of the "Asteroid Wars" sequence, but given what Bova has demonstrated of Fuchs, Humphries and others in the first two novels and Venus, there is no indication that the third volume will be any more uplifting than The Rock Rats. Rather than engage the reader's sense of wonder about space, The Rock Rats makes space exploration sadly mundane.
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