Stephen Baxter, HarperCollins
At one point a character in this 1997 hard sci-fi novel by British author Stephen Baxter notes how Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (written in 1971) has dated and is now a mere “description of a lost alternate world.”
The same could be said of Baxter’s novel, which follows a 2008 (!) manned NASA mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, today. Baxter acknowledges as much in his afterword noting that prominent scientist Carl Sagan, who fleetingly appears as a character in the book, died shortly after Baxter had drafted the scenes in question. Baxter decided to keep Sagan on, perhaps in a wistful recognition of the fact that science fiction isn’t really about predicting future at all.
As future prediction Titan – first published 14 year ago – is a bit off. After all there haven’t been any manned missions to Saturn. But a feeling of “this could happen” in a few years time still lingers over the proceedings. Titan reads as a downbeat version of 2001. The year is 2004. NASA’s Cassini probe discovers what might be signs of life on Titan. The cash-strapped NASA is however in its death throes. A far right-wing government set on dismantling the space program so as to focus on the military instead is on its way to winning the next elections. So in a last shot at glory some idealistic dreamers at NASA comes up with the idea of a manned mission to Titan using recycled components from the moon landings. The only catch is that it might be a one-way ticket and the journey there will take more than six years. Imagine being cooped up with only four other people in a space shuttle for almost seven years!
On, and in the meantime the “cold war” between the United States and China is warming up. The way things are going there might not be anything left for the Titan astronauts to come home to . . .
Strip away Arthur C. Clarke’s optimism and you get Titan. While the idea of a manned mission to Titan might be appealing to your inner space nut, you’d be glad that most of Baxter’s predictions didn’t come true. His vision of a resource-stripped planet Earth however remains chillingly realistic.
Off to a slow start – Baxter does his research but he tends to drown the reader in technical jargon, which in one scene results in probably the dullest space shuttle disaster ever. Titan however picks up as it progresses. It becomes a relentless struggle of survival at one point in which you’d wish for the sense of wonder Kim Stanley Robinson managed to inject into his Red Mars novels. Still, Titan is worth checking out for fans of Asimov and Clarke even if reading it today does come across as a description of some lost alternate universe . . .