BOOK REVIEW: "Sam Gunn Forever!" by Ben Bova (1998)

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Ben Bova is sort of a modern-day pulp writer. I read some of his stuff in the early 80s, and was not wowed by it. In those days, I kept my overflow books in my parents garage along with my old issues of Omni (Edited by Bova, coincidentally enough) and Starlog and Future Life, and what have you, and I’d paw through them while I was waiting for the glue to dry on whatever models I was building at the time. Most of my memories of Bova involve models of the Cygnus from Disney’s “The Black Hole”, and a lot of shivering. I’d found my local JC Penneys closing out their model stock in their toy department, and had gone a bit off my nut: I bought 8 models of the Cygnus for like ten bucks, and built a whole fleet of the things. I even got inventive and made variations on the thing – Stretch Cygnuses and what have you – during the winter of…I guess it was ’82. I read a couple Bova novels while waiting for all that glue to dry. I remember more about the models and the cold than I do the novels.

Bova is very much in the tradition of the Heinlein School of SF – likeable oversexed atheist libertarian heroes abound, gadding through various testosterone-heavy pots of high peril and boyish wonder, yadda yadda yadda. I’d read it all before. Many times. There was nothing new in his stories, though they were entertaining enough diversions at the time, but forgot them almost as soon as I put them down. He’s not a bad writer, there’s just nothing to set him apart from a zillion other perfectly adequate SF writers of no especial gift. There’s no trenchant insight, no reality shifting, no brilliant complexity of plot, no extremely well-fleshed-out alien societies or viewpoints, no glimmering characterizations that just jump off the page at you. Rather, there’s a lot of butch Americans running and shouting and shooting and screwing (In roughly that order) and in the end it doesn’t matter much.

So I found “Sam Gunn Forever” in the close-out rack at Dollar General for a buck, I was in the mood for something light, and I though, “What the Hell.” I plunked down my Sacagawea, and took it home.

Sam Gunn is a 5’3” ex-NASA astronaut who has all kinds of semi-humorous adventures. Evidently he’s been a stock character for Bova for some time, though I’d never heard of him before. He is described as ‘a force of nature’ and ‘Huck Finn in space.’ All kinds of things happen around him, and he moves from place to place as a fulcrum. He’s allegedly charming and womanizing and impish, and we’re supposed to like him. I say ‘allegedly’ because we’re told repeatedly all these qualities about him, but we don’t really see them all that well. He’s supposed to be a loveable rakehell, but he comes across as merely hyperactive, and not-unlikeable, but that’s not really the same thing, now is it?

The book is actually a compilation of five previously published short stories, and they’re tied together by a very loose ‘frame’ story which tells how Sam fell through a black hole, ended up lightyears from earth, and is laboriously making his way home again. A reporter character is going to Pluto to await Sams’ return, and en rout interviews five people who knew him. They tell stories about Sam, all in first person.

“Acts of God” (1st published in Science Fiction Age in May of ’95) has Sam running the Ecuadorian Space Program, which has had a number of expensive accidents of late. The insurance company refuses to pay, citing the accidents as being “Acts of God.” Sam therefore sues the Pope, as the Pope claims to be the representative of God on earth. It’s moderately entertaining, but the story is padded out with a tedious kidnapping at the end.

“Sam’s War” (1st published in Analog, in July of ’94) takes place prior to “Acts of God.” Ecuador and 11 other equatorial nations attempt to claim geosynchronous orbit as part of their national territories, and charge people to put satellites there. Most of the story concerns the president of Ecuador’s daughter, who infiltrates Sam’s Orlando-based space company as a new employee, in an attempt to sabotage it’s operations in GeoSynch. A bunch of stuff happens, and then it ends.

“Nursery Sam” (1st published in Analog in Jaunary of ’96) concerns Sam’s failing orbital hotel business which is bleeding him dry, and his various scammed attempts to unload the albatross on to his financial enemies. This is probably the most entertaining of the stories, despite it’s dues ex machina ending. (Sam’s girlfriend simply solves everything for him.)

“Tourist Sam” (Copyright 1997) is the most tedious of the lot, and tells the story of how Sam got fired by NASA. He started a space tourism business in Panama. In fact, it’s all a scam: Sam is faking vacation trips into orbit and bilking retirees out of their money. This is painfully obvious to anyone who can read on a 4th grade level, but we’re subjected to page after clueless page as Sam’s paramour-of-the-moment figures it out, and as if that isn’t bad enough, there’s still another 20 pages to go! The second half of the story is nothing but padding – a stupid assassination attempt which is just a misunderstanding, which, again, is painfully obvious to anyone who can read on a middleschool level. Boring, long, and dumb. This story was evidently previously unpublished, and I can see why – it’s just terrible. Faced with a choice between this and running blank pages, a competent magazine editor would run the blanks. Horrid stuff.

“Sam and the Prudent Jurist” (1st published in Science Fiction Age in January, 1997) is set a long time after the other stories, and evidently only shortly before Sam fell through the black hole. Sam is being tried for Genocide, but, of course, manages to get off scott free, and exposes a corporate conspiracy in the process, which was his plan all along, of course.

These stories are all very ‘90s.’ Though no dates are stated, they mostly involve a ‘ten years into the future’ kind of world, based on then-current stuff NASA was developing, but has since dumped. For instance, Several stories mention the “Clipper”, a replacement for the Space Shuttle that NASA was developing in the mid-90s, but abandoned for technical reasons. Space Station Freedom, which shows up in the stories, was likewise abandoned on the drawing board by NASA.

The biggest problem is that there’s no sense of ‘gee gosh wow’ wonder. Sam says he’s amazed by stuff, but doesn’t act that way. Technology is taken for granted, and only malfunctions in service of the plot, there’s no wonder or awe. Another problem is that several of these stories revolve around Sam being in danger, but we never really feel he’s at risk. Without peril, how can we have excitement?

The book was a modestly entertaining waste of time, but not worth seeking out. I expect I’ll take another 20-year vacation from Bova without missing too much.