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Apes and Angels
by Ben Bova
Tor/Forge, $25.99, 416pp
Published: November 2016

This book follows his last published book, Death Wave, however, it only barely relates to the last two books and stands well on its own.  Click here for the Death Wave review.

In the first book, Jordan Kell led a space mission and found an ancient alien civilization.  They also found a New Earth planet, populated by humans who had been taken from Earth.

In the second book, Jordan has returned to Earth with his alien (although human) wife.  They were sent with a message for the people of Earth.  There is a deadly wave of radiation from an explosion in the heart of the Milky Way that is headed for Earth, destroying all life in its path.  It won’t reach Earth for another two thousand years and the denizens of New Earth have sent technology to save us.  But they want and need more from us.  They need us to save all the other intelligent creatures in the path of the death wave.

This book follows the crew of a ship sent to the third planet in a star system where a stone-age bipedal race lives.  Our erstwhile hero is named Brad MacDaniels, a junior anthropologist.  Along with the expected contingent of engineers, biologists and the like, needed to explore a new planet, is a small group of anthropologists whose mission is to study the crew, not the aliens.  The trip will take 200 years there and 200 years back, the time spent in cryogenic sleep.  The anthropologists are interested in seeing what kind of shipboard society will emerge.  Once the ship arrives in-system, they also discover an aquatic race of beings on another planet in the system.

Brad makes the acquaintance of a young female biologist with a mutual initial attraction.  Unfortunately for Brad, she has also drawn the attention of the ship’s lead scientist, the defacto leader of the crew.  When Brad wins her affections, the scientist, Kosoff, finds an opportunity to separate the young couple by sending Brad alone to investigate the possibility that the aquatic race is sentient.  Some months later, Brad returns with some tantalizing clues that the creatures do have a language.  And he is relieved to see that his love, Felicia, has faithfully waited for him.  The crew continues to work towards a possible “first contact” scenario with the stone-age inhabitants of the third planet but little progress is being made on learning their language or coming to an agreement on the best way to initiate contact.

Still having a prickly relationship with Kosoff, Brad convinces Kosoff to allow him the mission of making first contact.  Kosoff sees it as another opportunity to separate the lovers for a long period of time.  Once on the planet, Brad determines that they have gone as far as possible with long-distance observation and first contact is critical to advance their mission.  Kosoff doesn’t agree but Brad rationalizes that it is for the greater good.  The rest of the story concerns itself with Brad bonding with the natives.  The natives are quite passive and have a mythology that when the elliptical orbit of their planet takes them farthest from the sun, into an ice age, that the Sky Masters send death from the sky for everyone.  The natives ‘plant’ new beings who grow beneath the soil until the orbit takes the planet back towards the sun and the newly born natives then start the cycle all over again.  Brad tries to divine if there is that scrap of truth in their legends or if it’s just the ice age that kills them.  But the natives are pretty emphatic that monsters come from the sky to kill everyone.  And, as it turns out, they are right.  Brad wants to fly in the face of all ship protocols and throw all their resources into saving these natives. He gains some support when he proves that the natives once had a more advanced society…before the Sky Masters destroyed them.

Well….where to begin. Unfortunately, the author takes too-gentle an approach to his characters.  It seems that he works at avoiding conflict while it is conflict that drives a story and makes it exciting.  He also posits a lot of ideas that aren’t fully realized.  He presented a conflict between the crew and the anthropologists studying them but never allowed that storyline to mature.  He made the aquatic race a plot device that seemed important at the time but dropped it just as soon as Brad returned to the ship; only to resolve it later with a simple paragraph. He seems conflicted himself as to how to portray the scientist, Kosoff.  He characterized Kosoff as a possible tyrant but gives us brief glimpses into the man that suggest he is able to put his feelings aside for a greater good.  So Kosoff never becomes fully a villain nor a reformed savior. Brad is driven by his own demons that actually casts him into the role that he imagines is Kosoff’s.  The message is that old saw:  It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.  So Brad does exactly what Brad wants to do, never-mind protocols or chain of command, but gets away with it when he succeeds and he is never held accountable.  The author introduces one tantalizing plot device – the mythical Sky Masters - but we don’t get a lot of substance.  And the end of the book just sort of gently ground to a halt. 

If I believed he would follow-up with a story about the Sky Masters and their intents and what it means for mankind’s mission to save other races, I’d buy it.  But based on the unresolved issues from the second book, I can’t count on it.  In fact, other than the occasional threat to contact the Earth’s World Council – which is never done in our view – there is no reference to any of the characters from the previous two books. A lackluster story, I’m sorry to say.  ~~  Catherine Book

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