With the mindless inevitability and unstoppable madness of a great mass of migratory lemmings, mankind is hurtling over a metaphorical precipice. Global warming and climatic change has driven humanity to the brink of extinction. The greenhouse effect has taken hold, icecaps are melting, damage from superstorms is beyond calculation, ocean levels are rising, coastlines are flooding and famine and pestilence are endemic. The ultra-right wing self-serving religious group, "The New Morality", has stepped into the political void ruling earth with a vicious, dictatorial stranglehold insisting upon blind obedience to its dictums which include, among other things, a prohibition against new science such as nanotechnology that might be crucial to saving the earth.
Dan Randolph is the CEO of Astro Manufacturing, a business behemoth which, unlike so many of its other corporate competitors, realistically pursues its profits but does so with a healthy dose of optimistic compassion and altruism. Recent financial difficulties, caused by the restrictions imposed on Astro by The New Morality, have forced Randolph to seek a business partnership to finance the development of a practical fusion rocket- a rocket built with the most up to date innovations in nanotechnology that will allow mankind to reach the Asteroid belt, a virtually limitless supply of industrial resource minerals and, perhaps even more important, an unimaginably vast source of fresh water in the form of ice.
The only pockets deep enough to contemplate bankrolling such a venture belong to Martin Humphries, a corporate baron who easily admits his only motives are wealth and power. While he also recognizes the likelihood that the fusion rocket is mankind's potential saviour, his only interest in the project is what it can do for his pocketbook. In the bargain, he positively lusts after the possibility of absorbing Astro Inc into his own corporate empire and putting Dan Randolph out onto the streets.
Randolph and Humphries recruit the crew for the ship, Starpower I - Pancho Lane, a wily, strong-willed and often outspoken but very feminine woman who is nevertheless comfortable with her skills and top-notch abilities as a pilot; Amanda Cunningham, on the other hand, is an equally feminine but rather more shy soft-spoken woman who is most uncomfortable with her innate ability to suck the oxygen from a room merely by virtue of her outrageous beauty; Lars Fuchs is a dedicated scientist, an intense man who quietly focuses on whatever engineering or science problem has been placed in front of him that day. Against the direct orders of The New Morality and under Humphries' very nose, Randolph and his crew take off on Starpower I and begin their long voyage to the Asteroid Belt.
Ben Bova has found a brilliant recipe that works and he certainly hasn't changed it in "The Precipice" - one part hard-core sci-fi; one part corporate potboiler; one part political intrigue; and one part primetime soap opera. His characters are wonderfully deep and realistic. Although that deeply entrenched sexism still seems to come through, it seems to manifest itself primarily in his male characters. The female protagonists are strong, talented, well-spoken and are pushovers to no man's whim. Humphries is the ultimate bad buy that every reader will love to hate and there won't be a single reader that isn't cheering Randolph on as he battles against Humphries and The New Morality.
Ben Bova's science is wonderful, well-explained without being simplistic and used to great advantage in the development of the story - nanotechnology; fusion rockets; invisibility cloaks (for those that think this is unrealistic drivel, I would recommend you take a look at Machio Kiku's "Physics of the Impossible"; solar flares and gamma radiation; interplanetary space travel and its inherent dangers; the realities of permanent space bases on the moon and beyond; the structure of asteroids; the climatic effects of global warming; and much more.
I have yet to meet the Ben Bova novel that I didn't enjoy and, for what it's worth, this is one of the best. "The Precipice" is part of the "Grand Tour of the Universe" series and the first in a sub-series trilogy entitled "The Asteroid Wars". I'm certainly looking forward to the second and third novels in the series, "The Rock Rats" and "The Silent War". Count me as a continuing fan, Mr Bova.
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