Ben Bova’s second novel, published in 1964, was expanded from an earlier short story. It tells the tale of the Star Watchman Emil Vorgens, a representative of the Terran Empire that covers over half the Milky Way, sent to the rebellious planet of Shinar. The Shinarians have invited the Komani raiders (imagine greenish wookies with half the brain and no delightful grunts) to assist them in resisting the Terrans who are seizing their land (to make protein food for the Shinarians – apparently the Terrans did not explain to the natives of Shinar that they were trying to help).
Of course the Terran Empire wants Shinar to be a cog in the massive wheel of the Empire because a MILLION years ago the Others (who are not the same as the Masters who were defeated in a later war) had knocked Earth back to the Stone age and they are scared that unless they have a domineering, imperialistic, militaristic, vast empire they will be unable to defeat the Others when they eventually return.
Emil Vorgens is sent to Shinar with almost no knowledge of the planet’s culture (no problem its a very boring, basic, unintelligent, and a four year old could have created a more interesting one), and ambiguous orders to make peace with the Wookie-things. Apparently when an Empire is so vast they send rookies to patch up a potential problem. This certainly does not bode well for an active society constantly on the lookout to defend against any influence of the Others.
Don’t worry, the Others do not come since that would make the story intersting. They are mentioned in one sentence in the beginning and misleadingly made out to be a big deal on the back cover. Neither do any really interesting questions arise besides ‘what are we going to do next’, nor any interesting adjectives to describe the planet besides its green and has bushes and a river, nor any interesting military technology although it is essentially military science fiction (besides grenades and jets).
Bova has some interesting ideas which go absolutely nowhere. For example using more than one sentence, what sort of society would arise after mankind had barely escaped complete destruction? How was this knowledge of the horror of the Others continued for it was A MILLION YEARS AGO? He also mentions, again in one sentence, that humanoids had risen as the intelligent form of life on many planets. Again, a interesting theory, why is it relegated to ONE sentence? One of his goals for the book which the little biography on him in the back tells us was to convey the multi-faceted aspect of revolution – then how come the answer to the whole story is pathetically simple? Why spend so much time making the wookie-things (Komani) humanlike to Emil Vorgens and then have him dispassionately kill them?
All in all, I have to admit, it is a fun read in the bad sort of way. The society he creates barely deserves the name society, the planet he creates is essentially a flattish green world with some bushes and hills, the Shinarians are simply farmers with some boring unoriginal cities and no culture. The mysterious element of the Others, the Masters, and the Terran Empire are but minute glimpses at great potential that Ben Bova simply ignores.
However, this was only Bova’s second novel.
One thought on “Book Review: Star Watchman, Ben Bova (1964)”
well, we can at least celebrate another fascinating book cover! perhaps you could delve deeper into the art of the sci-fi book cover/jacket… i am sure that the genre has not been explored in a critical and intelligent fashion. the best that i have seen are colorful coffee table books that never attempt to reach beneath the surface of the art…