Book Review: Apes and Angels

Warning – spoilers ahead

I browsed through the library haphazardly, not really intent on any specific author, or genre, or title, or length. Ben Bova’s Apes and Angels was displayed on the endcap, quite prominently, and I recognized the name. Plus above it I see “Six-time Hugo Award Winner”, so I think, hmm, he’s a good writer, let’s see what this has to say.

On the dust jacket inside I read about Predecessors and humanity traveling 200 light years to another planet to save them from some death wave of gamma radiation. Intrigued enough, I picked up the book and took it home.

Instantly I found it a quick read. I got to at least page 100 in the first hour or so, which was a relative oddity among what I’ve read recently. I attribute this to what seems rather simplistic writing – much of what happens is rather straight-forward description of action. People talk, then they walk somewhere, they make food and eat it, they have internal dialogue. I feel like the author wasn’t asking me to think too much, as he was spelling everything out, which allowed me to almost skim without worrying that I was missing something. Ultimately this means the pages just sped along. I finished this morning with about the last 180 pages in <2 hours.

The plot? Well, there were things that happened. Brad MacDaniels, the protagonist, does some various things, struggles against the emotional residue from the loss of his family, goes against his superiors time and again with always positive results (unrealistic), and ultimately saves the day. I would have liked to see more actual action, though. There was only one scene, during a flood on Mithra Gamma, in which I felt some tension, some fear for this guy that you’ve spend 300 pages building up in my mind. I wanted more of that, more danger, more real consequence for error. Plus, with a 5-year timeline for the spaceship in orbit, any “deadlines” always seemed rather nebulous and rather unimposing. Perhaps this could be better accentuated with some more pressing demands that ultimately impose greater stakes for the characters.

The characters – are rather shallow, all of them. Brad is the naive, impetuous, internal-demon-battling young adventurer. Felicia is his companion then wife, herself drawn seemingly to simply accentuate him, rather than to provide a full person in her own right, without any kinds of desires or ambition other than for Brad and his body. Kosoff, the scientific research captain, is the big bad wolf, always scheming, always plotting to turn Brad’s discoveries either against Brad or for his own benefit. Even the humanoids of planet Gamma are stock figures,  “intelligent but subservient to religion” that has been done many, many times before. I think Bova missed an opportunity here for greater depth, for character arcs, that would have shown some changes and, ultimately, humanity rather than roboticism.

The premise: Here is where I find the biggest failures of the book. Early on, Brad recognizes that the master computer, Emcee (MC), and the humans have become symbiotes. Neither can exist without the other. Unfortunately, the symbiosis between the predatory beasts of planet Beta and the prey humanoids on planet Gamma is left unidentified. Also left unexplored and unexplained is the parallelism between the Predecessors and the Sky Masters. Predecessors came to Earth, created New Earth and populated it with humanity, and gave those resultant humans vastly advanced technology. Sky Masters came to Mithra system’s Alpha, Beta, and Gamma planets, made vast changes therein (perhaps even so much as radically reorienting their biological systems), and then departed too. Are the Sky Masters the same as the Predecessors? Are either group completely benign, or simply manipulating the Earth system and the Mithra system for their own benefits? And what about the parallels between the interventions of hundreds of thousands of years ago and those that the Earthlings are doing on Alpha, Beta, and Gamma? So many potentials for true sci-fi understanding left unexplored.

Side note – I think that the distractions of the action on planet Alpha are less than helpful. They take up real estate on the page that would be better used to consider the debates listed above, and they don’t really add anything to any characterization or plot elements. Plus, the fact that the humans “save” the planet from destruction that is a million years off is rather flimsy. I think that it would have been better to just presume Alpha was uninhabited an therefore unimportant, devoting those hundred pages or so to the important intellectual debate only touched on above.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book. It drew me on, it entertained me, it got me thinking (a little bit), but I was left unsatisfied. Like a moderate make-out session that just doesn’t get to the sex part. That’s it? I want more! You tease…

If this were Amazon.com, I’d give it 3 stars. A fun way to pass a few hours, but nothing I’d want to read again. 

For examples of good, intelligent sci-fi I do want to read again, think The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doris Russell, or the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. Both of those treat interaction by humans and non-humans in a much more comprehensive, intellectually stimulating way.

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