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Friday, September 14, 2012

Revisiting Jupiter Project

Is this a gorgeous cover, or what?

Some books resonate with me more than others, and even though I read Jupiter Project by Gregory Benford early last year, I suddenly felt that I had to read it again.  I know I’ve covered different aspects of the book already, but for me, it represents everything that a good juvenile Science Fiction novel should.  It addresses the questions of identity that all teens strive to answer during that crazy and stressful period of their lives, when every decision seems to carry Life or Death significance.  In addition, it also serves as a metaphor for the human race.  Yes, we’ve built our cities and spread out over the planet.  We’ve developed technology far beyond the fondest dreams of primitive man.  But until we kick ourselves off our home planet, and find other places to work, live, and make our own, we’ll still be an adolescent species, clutching onto Mother Earth’s side. 

But I’ve spent enough time singing that particular song, so instead I’d like to talk about what the novel does particularly well.  First off, it addresses the topic of Fear.  This is a topic many of us like to ignore.  Like the protagonist Matt Bowles, we convince ourselves that nothing bothers us, that we are fearless.  Yet all of us have our little neuroses, those memories of pain and loss that sometimes inhibit us from doing what we know we should.  Perhaps we overcompensate in other areas of our lives, and grow antagonistic to certain types of people, as Matt does, even though (for much of the novel) he doesn’t know why he acts this way.  I particularly like Gregory Benford’s personal resolution for Matt, once he realizes how the memory of a traumatic childhood event has affected him.  He resolves to put away fear, to henceforth banish it from his life.  And for the remainder of the novel, he does so.  Yet it’s ironic that in two novels that followed Jupiter Project’s publication, If the Stars are Gods and The Stars in Shroud, he deals with adults (much older than Matt) who face very real fear and despair.  Sadly, Fear is a part of the human condition, and remains with us for as long as we live.  But Fear can be a good thing.  How many people might we hurt, if we didn’t fear to cause them injury or pain?

The second thing I still love about Jupiter Project is how Benford makes me feel like I’ve visited Ganymede.  The cover artwork reveals the moon’s stark beauty, with the ammonia fog boiling up as Matt’s Walker navigates the rocky ground.  Like, our moon, Ganymede is tide-locked, so one side of it always faces Jupiter.  This makes each “day” seven days long, and when the sun’s rays shine down, there’s no atmosphere to filter the light.  Such contrasts make for a vivid setting.  It’s a place I’d love to visit, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for transporting me there.

The final thing I really love about Jupiter Project (for the purposes of this post) is how unfantastic he makes everything seem.  I know that seems a strange way to praise a Science Fiction book, but in grounding his settings in realistic, achievable science, he convinces me that humanity could make that journey into space, and settle other planets and moons.  For example, Matt’s Walker is powered by a lightweight nuclear engine, and the process by which its oxygen and water supply is produced are explained so that even someone like me, who is weak in Science, can understand.  Similarly, there are no whimsical elements, such as the aliens Robert Heinlein often utilized in his juvenile novels.  Okay, I take it back, there are, but the humans never meet them.  Rather, Matt and his fellow humans eventually detect their presence through utilizing simple devices that a hobbyist could make.  Thus, humans make their entry into space, and prove their capability of remaining there, unassisted by any outside force.

“You do realize this is a juvenile novel,” the librarian asked me when she placed my request for Jupiter Project into the system.  She seemed surprised by my knowing smile and nod, as if I should have grown beyond a novel targeted to younger readers.  Well, perhaps I should have.  Perhaps some day I’ll consign it to the category of books I once enjoyed, but don’t need to read again.  I can already envision that day.  I’m sitting in front of the TV (assuming we’re still using such devices), and watching a broadcast from a space station orbiting Jupiter.  The station is called JABOL, and it is sending a space shuttle down to Ganymede, where people will build a habitable compound and begin the process of converting the planet’s atmosphere into something breathable by humans.  Yeah, I think on that day I’ll be ready to give up Jupiter Project.  Maybe.

In the meantime, if Gregory Benford could reissue a hardcover (or even a paperback) with easy-to-read text, and utilizing the same gorgeous cover art that adorns the first edition of his book, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.  Hint, hint, hint!

Dragon Dave

For my other posts on Jupiter Project, please see the Authors page.  

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