The Sam Gunn Omnibus by Ben Bova

(2007-04-14)

    

The Sam Gunn Omnibus by Ben Bova

Published by TOR, February 2007

ISBN: 9780765316172 or 076531617X

704 pages

 

Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit

 

So, what can I say about the author? Ben Bova clearly knows how to write and edit SF. He has written over seventy science fiction books. He is a six-times Hugo winner, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, ex-editor of Analog (taking over after Campbell’s death), and fiction editor of now long-gone Omni magazine. As well as writing fiction, he has been an advisor for American presidents and served as a president of the National Space Society.

 

In the past twenty years or so, Ben has returned to writing full time and in the last decade has been sneakily producing his own set of connected novels. Called The Grand Tour, they have visited many of the solar system’s planets (Mercury, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn) and a few selected choice locales in-between (the Asteroid Belt, Earth’s Moon and Titan for example) in a way that has illustrated many of Ben’s interests in space. These books have looked at Mankind’s faltering steps out into the solar system, the colonisation and industrialisation of other planets in the solar system and the need for capitalist entrepreneurs to lead the way forward.

 

Such concepts are echoed in the dedication of this novel, which reads: “These tales are dedicated to the entrepreneurs who are striving to open the space frontier for all humankind – and make a few bucks in the process.”

 

Throughout all of this time, (and indeed before The Grand Tour), Bova has also written about the character of Sam Gunn,  Ben’s ‘everyman’ character, to also explore these interests. Explorer, pioneer, opportunist, rogue, not to mention chauvinistic and overheated male – in Ben’s words, a ‘venture capitalist’ in the new frontiers, not afraid to bend the rules in order to suit his own means. His presence at key events – the re-launch into space, the development of space tourism, the building of space stations and space elevators, asteroid mining - have led to Sam having a unique perspective on the events in those novels – not to mention a vested interest. Perhaps this is what has led to the publication of this major story collection, which collects together stories written over a thirty-year writing period.

 

This includes the stories from Sam Gunn, Unlimited (1992), Sam Gunn, Forever (1998) and stories previously uncollected from magazines such as Science Fiction Age, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. There are three new stories to this collection. In total there are 51 ‘stories’ here, though only 19 or so are actual stories. The rest of these are clever linking passages designed to follow a story arc and write their own story of Jade, a young reporter who hopes to write the definitive documentary of Sam. These links allow Jade to connect the Sam parts of the fix-up collection, by interviewing many of those who knew Sam.  Really, this is a fix-up to fix up previously fixed up collections.

 

So what of the tales themselves? As you might expect from a writer who has been writing a long time, the style is uncomplicated yet deceptively difficult to replicate. The stories move logically and enjoyably through a series of set pieces which create a big picture.

 

The characterisation is fairly straightforward, though a little stereotypical. Big bad corporations are corrupt, yet can be beaten by little individuals with stamina and enthusiasm. Characters sleep with other characters in order to make career progress. Beautiful women are there to be gazed at and bedded, (though to be fair there are blonde women with intelligence and a gay male who is the first person to be cured of AIDS through gene replacement therapy), Communists and dictators are there to be used in order to allow Sam’s capitalist enterprises to flourish (and give a reminder that some of these stories were written when The Space Race was more antagonistic than it seems to be now.)

 

All of this of course is a tableau on which to display the lead character. But what of the main man himself?  Sam is an overenthusiastic entrepreneur, a red-headed short guy with not exactly film star looks (though to one character, Sam reminds him of Mickey Rooney) but somehow manages to make fortunes, lose fortunes and date lots of women. Sam is created as an Errol Flynn of the Spaceways, blazing a trail to new frontiers.

 

This is, of course, all done with an engaging degree of humour. Sam’s boundless energy is quite endearing. More importantly, behind it all there is Bova’s grand design laid out. Here there are the first steps of a new Space Age, the creation of orbital platforms, asteroid mining, the colonisation of the moon and the solar system, corporate battles and space challenges set amongst places of danger, boredom and beauty. If words like Selene City, Moonbase and Lagrange Points create that sense of wonder for you, then you may like this book. It is, with minor inconsistencies (explained away by the author in his introduction), a cleverly re-imagined collection, and at 700+ pages, a lengthy one!

 

In summary then, this old-fashioned, yet likeable, volume is a great encapsulation of Bova’s writings over the past thirty years or so. Written in a style likely to appeal to fans of Heinlein or possibly John Varley, it can perhaps be seen as an entertaining alternate history these days. Though a little dated, it can be a lot of fun.

 

Mark Yon / Hobbit, March 2007

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