[Originally posted in March and April 2000 at SciFiDimensions.com. Dr. Bova died in November 2020. For more about Ben Bova and his lifetime of work, visit BenBova.com]
Ben Bova is a busy man.
He’s has been a journalist, a teacher, a marketeer, an editor, and, oh yeah…a writer.
Having spent many successful award-winning years as the editor of Analog and OMNI magazines, Dr. Bova is well-prepared to tackle his latest publishing project: GalaxyOnline, a new internet magazine which promises to be more than just electrons on the screen.
I talked to Dr. Bova on a wide range of topics. Part One of the interview concentrates on his editorial career, his impressive novels Mars and Return to Mars, and his views on Martian exploration. Next month, in Part Two, we’ll talk about Venus (coinciding with the release of his new novel) and his views on the future of science fiction.
Q: You were the editor of OMNI magazine for many years. A couple of years ago (after your time there, it should be noted), OMNI tried to make the transition from print to online, then folded. What went wrong?
Ben Bova: I don’t really know. When I left OMNI, in 1982, the magazine was selling nearly a million copies per month and thick with advertisements. It went steadily downhill afterward.
Q: We hear Bob Guccione (who published both OMNI and Penthouse) is quite a character. How was it working with him?
BB: Bob was the best publisher I ever worked with. He provided the staff with terrific resources and left us pretty much alone to do our jobs. I think that tales about his personal life are much exaggerated. He seemed to me to be totally wrapped up in his work as a publisher…except for occasionally photographing naked women.
Q: You’ve been at ground zero with more than one print magazine. What’s different about the start-up of GalaxyOnline?
BB: The major difference with GalaxyOnline is technical. Print magazines use technologies and business techniques that are more than a century old. An on-line super-site, such as GalaxyOnline, is breaking new ground. We have the capability to publish enormous amounts of very varied material, including multi-media and interactive material. All this is very new. We are literally creating a new publishing form, a new market, and a new system of business.
Q: Science fiction in the 1990s paid a lot of attention to two topics: Mars and nanotechnology. Your recent work has featured both prominently. What do you think will be the first truly practical application of nanotech, and when do you see it coming?
BB: Probably the first practical applications of nanotechnology will be in manufacturing extremely miniaturized electronic devices, which we should see within ten years. Nanomachines will have a great impact on just about every aspect of space technology, for example. Medical applications will come later, largely because of the legal and ethical questions involved.
Q: Now let’s talk about Mars, which is our theme for the month. There’s been plenty of buzz over Robert Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” plan for sending humans to the Red Planet. What do you think of the plan, and what’s its major weakness?
BB: I think Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” plan is logical and efficient. I used a variant of it in my 1999 novel, Return to Mars. I don’t see any major flaws in the plan itself. However, when Zubrin begins to talk about colonizing Mars, we part ways. There is no need for that, and as long as there’s a chance that Mars once hosted indigenous life forms, we should restrict the planet to scientific exploration. Tourism on Mars can be done through virtual reality, as I showed in Return to Mars.
Q: How much were you influenced by other recent novels about Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson’s series, Greg Bear’s Moving Mars, etc.)? Did you read those works, and did you make a conscious effort to do something different?
BB: I have deliberately avoided reading the other Mars novels, because I wanted to keep my vision clear of alternative visions.
Q: There are two big-budget Mars movies coming out this year. Looking back, do you have a favorite Mars movie?
Q: Are you thinking of doing another Mars book?
BB: Yes, there is obviously more of Jamie Waterman’s story to be told. But not for a while yet. My latest novel is Venus (Tor, April 2000) and I’m now working on Jupiter. Those two new ones, plus the Mars and the Moonbase Saga novels are my way of exploring the solar system and showing readers what is possible in the 21st century.
Q: What scientific or technological topic has received too little attention in science fiction? What would you like to see science fiction writers explore in the next decade?
BB: Frankly, there’s too little in science fiction about scientists themselves—the kinds of people they are, the kinds of lives they lead, the personal and professional problems they face. Science fiction deals mostly with adventures and technology, not basic science and the dedicated men and women who do the research. The field has largely ignored the impact of vastly elongated human lifespans. We’re writing novels about people who live “threescore years and ten” and then die. That’s not the way it is NOW, and it certainly isn’t the way it will be in the next decade and evermore thereafter.
Q: Who among the up-and-coming science fiction writers catches your eye?
BB: It would be unfair for me to mention a name or two at the expense of others.
Q: You’ve done two books about Mars, and now you’re turning your attention to Venus. Your new novel Venus comes out in this April. Can you give us a sneak preview?
BB: Venus is about a spoiled young man who accepts a ten-billion-dollar challenge to reach the surface of Venus—partly out of love for his dead older brother, who died trying to explore Venus, partly out of spite for his father, who’s offering the prize. What he finds on Venus (including very dangerous native life forms) changes him forever.
Q: If you landed on Venus you’d simultaneously be boiled, crushed, and corroded. Is it really possible we could ever visit there? And is there any practical value to visiting a place like that?
BB: Venus is a very inhospitable planet, but with the proper equipment it could be explored by humans. It probably won’t be, because it’s much safer (and cheaper) to use remotely-controlled machines. I can’t see any practical reason for going to Venus except to gain more knowledge—which in the long run is the most practical reason of all.
Q: In doing your research on Venus, what surprised you the most?
BB: The fact that the planet’s surface might be on the verge of blasting itself apart in a titanic, global cataclysm.
Q: You mean like a gigantic Venus-quake? Is Venus seismologically unstable?
BB: Since Venus’ surface hasn’t changed much in the past 500 million years, some planetary astronomers believe that an enormous amount of heat is building up beneath the crust and will one day erupt very violently. This is one of the themes in my novel, Venus. The planet may be a time bomb, ticking away.
Q: Is a sequel to Venus forthcoming?
BB: Not a sequel, per se; but the background story of Venus nicely sets up a series of new novels that I’m beginning to do, under the general title of The Asteroid Wars.
Q: Aside from being hip-deep in the new GalaxyOnline, what other projects are you working on?
BB: Jupiter, The Asteroid Wars novels, a piece for Scientific American about future sports, opinion pieces for newspapers (including USA Today), reviews of science books, and—when time permits—playing with my two grandsons.