Book Review: As on a Darkling Plain, Ben Bova (1972)

(Chris Moore’s cover for the 1981 edition)

2.75/5 (Average)

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)

Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 9.25.48 PM(Enrico Scull’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1974 edition)

(Tom Kidd’s cover for the 1985 edition)

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17 Replies to “Book Review: As on a Darkling Plain, Ben Bova (1972)”

  1. Hi Joachim,

    The title comes from the poem ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold, Victorian headmaster of Rugby School and the stanza reads:-

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

    So it fits nicely Bova’s theme. I only know this because this happens to be one of my favourite poems…

    1. Cool. I assumed it was something like that…. Well, the poem seems to be superior to the novel…. 😉

      I still find that “darkling” sounds like a creature straight out of a fantasy novel. Here come the evil little darklings! Children, beware!

  2. I like the Dean Ellis cover the best. Which surprises me, as I usually find his work to be mediocre. His designs for alien or futuristic hardware strike me as a hodgepodge of elements from mid-20th century, man-made objects – like vacuum cleaners. (Only Rick Sternbach’s covers are worse in this respect.) So, while it’s clearly inspired by the TMA-1 scene in Kubrick’s 2001, the cover does a respectable job of evoking the unknown, alien, and mysterious.

  3. “Dover Beach” is one of my favorite poems as well.

    The little Ben Bova I have read, I think Exiled From Earth and City of Darkness, struck me as mediocre and forgettable, like he doesn’t bring anything new or special to standard plots, no signature style or surprising new perspectives.

    Maybe a Bova fan who reads this blog can point us to his top work and/or tell me why my assessment is wrong.

    1. I couldn’t agree more with this assessment — I’ve read three of his novels (albeit all early ones) and they are average at best — The Star Watchman (1964) (atrocious), The Dueling Machine (1969) (bad), and this one, which was the best of the bunch.

    2. I believe Bova’s top work is his Grand Tour series – comprised of twenty novels so far. I remember reading one of them about a decade ago, but I don’t remember which one.

      1. Yeah, at one point when I actually read post-1980 SF I picked up one of them — Mars or something — but never got around to reading it… I tend to ditch all post 80s novels (well, besides the few I really adore) on friends. Hopefully they got some enjoyment out of it.

      1. Agreed. He’s a good palate cleanser in between more demanding books for me.
        I’m sure he’s improved technically, but I dunno if he’ll ever get that extra sparkle in his books. Apparently a killer editor though, which may explain the competence bit.

  4. The Bova novels I’ve read match your description of this one spot-on: competent, workmanlike, and filling, much like oatmeal. I love me some oatmeal, but I don’t eat it for every meal, much less eat it every day. (Somewhere, my reading = eating metaphor broke down.) When The Sky Burned for example, published the year after this one: pretty mediocre with unlikeable cardboard characters.

    Maybe I’ll find one of his novels that I really, really like, but I have to agree with the earlier posts: the man was an excellent editor. He simultaneously reinvented and reinvigorated Analog after John Campbell died, then went on to helm OMNI‘s fiction department.

      1. It was gifted to me because of the cover, which is a winner. Very fast-paced “as the world burns” kind of novel where a space station lucky enough to survive an apocalyptic solar flare has to send people down to scavenge for critical resources on Earth. I guess “potboiler” is a better description than “mediocre” because it was good for what it aimed to be, tight-plotted fast entertainment. But like its characters, shallow and awkward at times.

        1. Well, if I find it at a used book store I might give it a shot — but won’t go out of my way to find it… I am in an unusual 70s Space Opera mood… Feel like reading Benford’s In the Ocean of Night (1977) for example…

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