(Chris Moore’s cover for the 1981 edition)
Unfortunate title aside (“darkling” sound like a small evil creature in a work of fantasy), Ben Bova’s As on a Darkling Plain (1972) is a middling fix-up novel in every respect. It is worth noting that Chapters 5 (‘The Jupiter Mission’) and 6 (‘The Sirius Mission’), which comprise a great majority of the novel, appeared earlier in If February 1970 and Galaxy January 1969 as “Pressure Vessel” and “Foeman, Where Do You Flee?” respectively. I’m not sure how much was expanded or subtracted. If anyone knows please leave a comment — I find that the act of revising earlier work interesting in itself.
Bova’s novel inspired my recent cover art post on Future Archeology and Mysterious Artifacts. The premise is a standard one: A mysterious artifact (in this case a massive machine complex on Titan) is discovered and the true purpose is unknown. However, the speculation that the device might be an alien weapon — or some other nefarious machine — creates incredible fear. Mankind is motivated to throw massive resources at figuring out the enigma of the Titan artifacts…
As on a Darkling Plain will not shock anyone with unexpected plot twists or vividly drawn scenes — nor will it provoke deep thought. Rather, the plot is tight (if anticlimactic) and the characters are sparsely but effectively drawn.
Vaguely recommended for fans of 60s/70s “there’s a mysterious ruin let’s go investigate for mankind might be threatened” type science fiction. The idea that mankind will be driven into space due to fear rather than scientific curiosity is a potent operating principle to frame Bova’s world-building. But such a principle is not fully utilized….
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“Man reached towards the stars not in glory, but in fear” (9). Sidney Lee not only dreams of the towers found on Titan but even tried to kill himself amongst their shadows…. Their purpose is unknown but they appear to be turned on. A variety of expeditions are planned in a desperate attempt to uncover some shred of evidence that might assist in discovering their creators.
The narrative follows three main characters who form a surprisingly un-melodramatic love triangle: Sidney Lee, who seeks to return to space after his suicide attempt on Titan; Marlene Ettinger, an accomplished scientist, who loves Sidney and wishes he would shed some of his obsession for Titan; and Bob O’Banion, a pilot, who loves Marlene and throws himself at the most dangerous space mission when his advances are rejected.
A few short chapters setting the stage lead up to the first previously published segment — ‘The Jupiter Mission.’ This portion feels completely tangential to the main narrative. Bob O’Banion, after he’s rejected by Marlene, heads to Jupiter — one of many missions to find information on creators of the towers on Titan. In order to withstand the pressures, Bob and his colleagues’ lungs are removed and gills are attached. Their spacecraft is filled with a saline liquid. As they delve below Jupiter’s surface they encounter various lifeforms… All in all, the premise (the body modification etc) is evocative although its inclusion appears to be an attempt to pad the novel.
The second previously published segment, ‘The Sirius Mission’, follows Marlene and Lee on their voyage to a planet around the star Sirius. On which substantial evidence is found about the creators of the towers and humanity’s past…. The final portion concerns Lee and Marlene’s return to Titan where the mystery is all too hastily, and predictably, resolved. How scientists could study the Towers for 70 + years a not discover their secret — considering how obvious it is — is beyond me.
(Larry Kresek’s cover for the 1978 edition)
(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1974 edition)
(Tom Kidd’s cover for the 1985 edition)
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