Week 1, Book 1: Leviathans of Jupiter
Leviathans of Jupiter by Ben Bova
I picked this book up at Coles bookstore in my hometown, the second day of this year, simply because I’d entered a bookstore with money in my pocket and thought I’d get something new to read. I have something of a weakness – though it isn’t often indulged – for science fiction of this sort. ‘This sort’ being, of course, sci-fi that uses the premise that Earth is not the only place of intelligent life on the solar system. I find it particularly enjoyable when it features what we know as gas giant planets. As soon as I spotted the title of this book, I thought of Missing Men of Saturn – an old book which I read some years ago and enjoyed greatly, despite its science being rather out of date nowadays.
So I picked this book up with the expectation of indulging in some fun, adventurous sci-fi of a rather classic twist, and the blurb did nothing to disabuse me of this notion. The fact that Leviathans was written in 2011 by a notable sci-fi writer just made me more eager, as I hoped for a more modern – and thus more aware of the problematic writing that has afflicted science fiction through the years – perspective. It is still, I believe, the only book by Ben Bova I have read, and it wasn’t until just now that I was aware that Leviathans was a sequel to Jupiter, a previously published book featuring some characters that also appear in this one.
SPOILER WARNING: Character spoilers and hints of plot spoilers
I didn’t, I’ll admit, enjoy quite as rollicking of a ride as I hoped. This was partly my fault, but also, I think, partly the fault of the book. On my part, I’ve grown more sensitive to how women are presented in fiction – yes, the big scary f-word is to blame! Feminism! Oh no! Anyway. One of the major human point of view characters is Deirdre is introduced right off the bat with descriptions that set her up right away as a ‘perfect’ female character: a microbiologist, stunningly beautiful, and with a sort of polite naiveté or gentleness in her attitude. Too perfect, in fact. None of the male characters that are introduced are described in the same way she is. We barely see Dee get to use her microbiology or scientific knowledge (even when you’d expect it to have some informing influence on the situation – such as when discussing rabies and so forth) whereas the male characters are highly defined by their scientific occupations (except for the cyborg, Dorn… as he lacks a specific occupation). And right off the bat she reacts to the leering of male characters with a… bizarrely accepting calmness. Accepting it as her due, in a way, for being so stunning. Which is disturbing and riddled with evidence of sexism. Not to mention, I don’t think I could name one flaw of hers, off the top of my head.
The leering, from one particular character, we later find out is basically joking but it doesn’t change the discomfort and just… unreal way Dee reacts to it. I’ve rarely had such a thing happen to me, but it made me actively uncomfortable at the beginning. She is also, at the very outset, infantilized in a way – she calls her father ‘Daddy’ despite being a grown woman in her early 20s. Or so I gathered from the book – I left it back at my parent’s house and thus don’t have it on hand to check. So things did not get off to a good start.
The other major characters we are introduced to include the leering man mentioned above – Max Yeager, an engineer. I rather liked Max, once we got to see past the discomfiting leering, and I would not even mind his off-colour comments so much… if they had begun to occur after some familiarity and comfort had already been established. But they don’t. Andy Corvus is interesting and generally likable, certainly I liked him, and he wasn’t overly predictable as the love interest of Dee, at first (though it became evident from both of their PoVs relatively early on). Dorn is the most interesting. We don’t get his PoV very often and even from his own PoV he is mysterious and aloof… or perhaps that’s just because we don’t get much of a sense of emotion from him, ever. We do learn something of his ‘dark past’ (which was also rather on the predictable side once it was hinted at. If even I can pick up on the foreshadowing, you know it must be evident!), though.
The major villain is also a woman, and like Dee she is described in rather perfect manner that is never matched by any of the descriptions of the male characters. Minor characters – both women and men – seemed to have been described fairly similarly, certainly nothing jumped out at me. But Katherine Westfall, the villain, is also a fairly idealized, highly feminized image of a woman. Add in that her major core motivation for her actions was a fairly irrational (especially for a mature woman) highly emotional insecurity complex and her voice was always very high and I was also alternately baffled and cringing. I couldn’t help but read it as a very “female” motivation in a not-fun-at-all sexist way. She was, other than that, an interesting and believable villain, however. But I still can’t help but think that if she had been male she would not a) have been often described as ‘small’ and ‘high-pitched’ in a way that seemed intent on reducing her threat level and b) been given a different core motivation.
Now, the PoV of one specific leviathan (called Leviathan) was very well-executed and by the time I got most of the way through the book – with the cringe-worthy introductory descriptions past – Leviathans was getting quite enjoyable indeed. I always like a well written alien PoV and that is one thing that I felt this book did quite well! I want to read a sequel almost solely to see what happens with the leviathans and our PoV Leviathan in particular.
The cast of the book – since it always something worth paying attention to – was described either in a way that implied whiteness or specifically stated it for the most part. There were some minor characters, including a doctor who was peripherally important to Westfall’s plot, who were explicitly described as being of various Asian descents. It was usually done rather awkwardly, though, I felt, with the doctor mentioned being continuously described just as “Asian man” or “old Asian man” or “short old Asian man”. Nothing identifying beyond that, which stood out in stark contrast to the description of a White character of similar relevance who was red-haired and described quite well. In fact, the Red Devil was one of the more vividly sketched characters, I felt. There were a few other offhand descriptions of very minor characters (i.e. nameless) but the only other character of any significance that had anything other than White implied, whom I can recall (lacking my book), was a woman who was helping with the immersion tank. A “Polynesian woman” she was described as, with the same awkwardly adjectival use of “Polynesian” as there was with “Asian” up above.
Out of the main human characters, in fact, the only one who I don’t think was ever specifically described in a way that indicated whiteness was Dorn, the cyborg. And even for him there may have been a sidenote of his “pale skin”, though if there was, it didn’t sink in. His descriptions, as you can imagine, tended to revolve around his cyborgness. So Leviathans definitely didn’t blow me out of the water in regards to race! And was noticeably lacking in People of Colour who were something other than Asian or Polynesian.
I have only one other critique I can think of, and that is that it took too long to get the adventure I was hoping for! The book was split, IIRC, into thirds, and it wasn’t until the final third that they actually went down to Jupiter. It was, for its length, rather lacking in the excitement that it could have been packed with. Aside from all that, however, it was still an entertaining read and it did deliver some light, fluffy sci-fi fun! I rated it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, which translates in Goodreads-speak into “I liked it”. Which is true. I did, for all the critiques I had and the cringe-inducing beginning. You can tell it was written by a man not possessed of extraordinary empathy for women, let’s put it that way!
I have finished reading The Silmarillion, making it book 2 of 52 for this year. Will review that next week!