Book review: Ben Bova – The Sam Gunn Omnibus

The Sam Gunn Omnibus by Ben Bova

Ben Bova - The Sam Gunn Omnibus

Tor Books, 704 pp; $29.95 HBK (US RRP); ISBN 978-0765316172; pub. Feb 2007

As the title suggests, the The Sam Gunn Omnibus is a fix-up novel that collects all of Ben Bova‘s stories about the eponymous hero, written for and published in the US science fiction magazines of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

So, who is Sam Gunn? He’s the boom-bust entrepreneur incarnate, an embodiment of laissez faire capitalism in space exploration who names spaceships after free-market economists and sees a profit in every problem, large or small. He’s also a reincarnated Huck Finn in a space suit; a tireless braggart and womaniser; the natural enemy of rules, regulations and corporate methodology. If it wasn’t for his redeeming habit of helping out his friends en route to his next pile of riches, you’d have to hate him on principle — and most people already do.

And that’s as far as it goes for character development. Gunn is an avatar, a plot device through which Bova explores and exploits the solar system using scientifically plausible methods that governments and corporations have so far refused to use, for various reasons. As such, these tales of the first businesses, hotels and habitats in orbit should be hugely relevant in this era of nascent space tourism operations, inspiring grandiose dreams of a brighter bolder future for our species.

And they might still have been, if the stage wasn’t hogged by the overbearing and improbable Gunn. The other characters are no better – a roster of crude geopolitical stereotypes and caricatures – and it is probably the attitudes implicit in these characterisations that most clearly date these stories as relics of a bygone era. The life of Sam Gunn reads like an apologia for greed and misogyny, and even readers sympathetic with Bova‘s yearnings for the human race to escape the gravity well may find themselves tiring of the same successful-underdog plot continually reiterated against a slightly different backdrop.

Perhaps I’ve just missed the point, even though Bova‘s introduction suggests that there is no point to miss. As pure escapist wish-fulfilment, the Omnibus succeeds, but the reader in search of true sensawunda may wish to search elsewhere.

[This review was originally published in Interzone some time early in 2007; the precise issue number currently escapes me. It is offered in lieu of more substantial and original content during this particularly busy week.]

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