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Out of the Sun, Ben Bova, 1984

Back in my freshman year of high school, one of my friends handed me a book. “Here, you’ll definitely like this,” he said, handing me a book after confirming I’d never heard of the author before. The author was Ben Bova, the book was Mars. Mars and a couple other books in Bova’s Grand Tour series really rekindled my love for science fiction (I’d started early with Clarke and Asimov, but that love affair died out early) and put me back on the path of reading sci-fi regularly.

It’s been years since I last read Bova, and damned if I can’t remember much about his writing style. I vaguely remember the plots: explorer goes to planet, finds life. It was kind of formulaic, bit it was interesting to see what Bova imagined may live out there, and how it had adapted to its environment. The books are definitely something I should return to in the near future, but for now I’m going to stick to a paperback I picked up a few months ago: Out of the Sun.

When Out of the Sun was written in 1984, Bova was serving as editor of Analog magazine. However, I don’t think his job of editing and selecting short stories and novellas to run every month translated particularly well to this effort. Out of the Sun is short, only 90 pages or so. The rest of the book is filled out with an essay about lasers, the main plot device of the story. It’s a weird combination, and to the experienced and knowledgeable sci-fi reader, seems a little redundant.

The plot goes something like this. “Arrow One”, a new experimental fighter, is flying patrol over the Arctic Ocean. Radar soon picks up an unknown airplane. When Arrow One goes to check it out, it suddenly and mysteriously explodes as it enters visual range of the airplane. Soon after, two more planes, Arrow Two and Arrow Three, meet the same fate when flying on a joint mission. From their sightings, the enemy aircraft is determined to be some new type of Soviet bomber, but the true cause of the Arrows’ fate is unknown.

Not a bad premise for a Cold War thriller, but for some reason the exercise here seems more like Bova is going through the motions. The story centers around Paul Sarko, an engineer who designed the metal alloys for the Arrows. Having quit the Air Force a year earlier, he is brought back to aid in the investigation. For lack of any other evidence, suspicion for the crashes quickly centers in the revolutionary new alloys.

And it stays there. Despite the fact that the planes exploded within sight of an enemy bomber, most engineers remain fixated on the idea that there was some sort of metal fatigue that went undetected in testing. The fixation seems utterly lame, and it’s really only a device used to spur Sarko to find out the real cause of the crash. As it turns out, it is the Russians, and they’re using a laser. I don’t consider that a spoiler, unless you also consider the first words you read after opening the cover to be a spoiler as well.

Out of the Sun contains a novel of laser warfare and a science fact exposition of where lasers are today…

Anyway, part of the story seems like a push to legitimize Reagan’s “Star Wars” laser defense program, which Bova’s essay The Amazing Laser elaborates on a little more. It definitely carries the tinge of 80s Cold War paranoia about a supposed Soviet technological superiority. (To make a short digression, a particularly enlightening read about Reagan’s SDI program and the true state of Soviet miltech in the 1980s would be David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand.) But not even lasers can carry a story. I think part of the problem is that the story was supposed to be a build-up to the big reveal of “a laser did it!”, but ended up getting ruined by the intro. That or I’m missing something here. The pacing felt too slow for a thriller, while the plot hammered on the “it must be the alloys” idea way too long. This probably would have been better as a short story, or alternatively, with a lot of rewriting and editing, the beginning of a longer novel. Instead, it sits in the mediocre in-between.

If you’re new to laser technology, The Amazing Laser is a fairly solid read on the physics and history of lasers. Analog has long carried a “Science Fact” section, with a number of essays being written by Bova himself. It is very factual, and Bova excels as a science writer. Some of the information is a little outdated (state of the art lasers aren’t what they used to be), but it seems to be as good a primer as any. There is a section on different types of lasers and their theory of operation, and that alone may make it worth the read for more experienced readers who may only be passingly familiar with the tech.

All in all, not the best purchase I’ve made. The story did nothing memorable or really anything much at all, while the essay mostly covered things already within my knowledge base. Distressingly, I think the essay was much better than the story that served as its setup. Out of the Sun is something that is worth the buy only if you’re inexperienced with thrillers or lasers.

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