Today, we give you a double-shot of hard science fiction goodness! Recently, I’ve discovered the wonderful, amazing, superlative SF author that is Stephen Baxter. After reading and loving his apocalyptic duology, Flood and Ark (with the latter as my favorite read of 2009), I immediately dived into the author’s backlist.
Titan (Book 2 in the NASA Series)
Publisher: Voyager (UK) / EOS (US)
Publication Date: July 1997 (UK) / October 1998 (US)
Paperback: 676 pages (US)
Stand alone or series: Technically book 2 in Stephen Baxter’s NASA Trilogy, but each book in the series may be read as a stand alone novel.
How did I get this book: Bought
Summary: (from HarperCollins.com)
Humankind’s greatest–and last–adventure!
Possible signs of organic life have been found on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. A group of visionaries led by NASA’s Paula Benacerraf plan a daring one-way mission that will cost them everything. Taking nearly a decade, the billion-mile voyage includes a “slingshot” transit of Venus, a catastrophic solar storm, and a constant struggle to keep the ship and crew functioning. But it is on the icy surface of Titan itself that the true adventure begins. In the orange methane slush the astronauts will discover the secret of life’s origins and reach for a human destiny beyond their wildest dreams.
One of the great things about reading older science fiction novels is how they have become “alternate histories” of a sort – George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories were all set in a specific future; dates that have passed, and future visions unfulfilled. Stephen Baxter’s Titan is another science fiction to join these ranks – written in 1997 and imagining a future after the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn & Titan in 2004/2005. Some of Titan is downright freaky – Mr. Baxter’s predictions about the surface of the moon, his understanding of the physical, engineering restraints on getting a manned shuttle to the outer solar system, and eerie prescience in his prediction of Columbia‘s crash are uncanny. Titan encompasses the predicted findings of the Cassini mission and an alternate history in which NASA struggles with the Air Force and political-religious fundamentalism to launch one last great mission before the American space program becomes grounded for the rest of the foreseeable future. There are international tensions between the United States and China, and the future of planet Earth in its entirety – thanks to human wastefulness and shortsightedness – is also examined.
After the Columbia malfunctions and crashes reentering Earth’s atmosphere, the future of NASA is in dire straits. With the 2008 election looming just a few years on the horizon and conservative, religious fundamentalist Senator Xavier Maclachlan a lock for the White House, Paula Benacerraf knows that NASA’s days – and effectively humanity’s days of space exploration – are numbered. But on the impassioned and just barely feasible dream of ambitious young JPL scientist Isaac Rosenberg and his hypothesis that there is life on Titan (based on readings from the Huygens probe), Benacerraf and a team of pilots and engineers make a last-ditch effort to put humans on a one-way, six-year-long transit mission to the distant, Saturn moon. Cobbling together a ship capable of the billion mile trip from the remaining space shuttles, Saturn V rockets, and Apollo landing modules, the mission launches amid myriad political tensions and technical difficulties. On the six-year trek to Saturn, however, the intrepid crew of five astronauts (including Benaceraff and Rosenberg) encounter unfathomable hardships – solar storms, micrometeoroids, a dwindling food source, and emotional, physical and mental deterioration. And by the time the crew reaches the frozen, smog-kissed surface of Titan, what they find – both on this alien world and in the massively delayed messages from Earth – is unlike anything they could have imagined.
Titan is hard science fiction at its best – even in this early novel, Stephen Baxter’s skill at blending hard science fiction with flawed characters in an engaging, challenging story is clear. At its heart, Titan is essentially an exploration story – like Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent to the summit of Mt. Everest, Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole, or even Christopher Colombus’ discovery of The New World (or, perhaps, more fittingly Polynesians navigating balsa-log boats by the stars to unknown islands in an endless sea) – in the cold, void reaches of space. The plot lacks the sensationalism of Flood or Ark (or even Moonseed, below), but takes a more subdued tone throughout – and as such, the story moves a bit slowly. But “slow” does not mean “bad,” make no mistake of that – for Titan is a subtle, nihilistic, and yet surprisingly hopeful novel about life in the universe, and humanity’s place in it. Mr. Baxter examines a number of familiar SF themes in this novel (deep space travel, the question of life on other worlds), but the strength & novelty of Titan lies in his examination of less-familiar themes in the SF arena – such as the dangers of ignoring science and promoting self-insulation (on both a personal and national level) and the motivations for human exploration.
Add to all of these compelling elements Mr. Baxter’s vivid protagonists, whom are neither “good” nor “evil,” but rather are tangible, flawed human beings. Paula Benaceraff isn’t the most likable character, nor is scientist crew member Rosenberg – but their struggles and failings make them all the more human, at least to me as a reader. Though some of the secondary characters, in particular the McCarthy-esque MacLachlan and his USAF lackeys are less developed and more caricaturish, I appreciate Mr. Baxter’s ability to take risks. So many novels are constrained by this need to create “hero” characters (those that are either likable, redeemable or relatable characters), and that’s fine and dandy. But in a book like Titan (or in any of Mr. Baxter’s bleaker work, such as those I’ve read so far) these hero character simply don’t work. The reasoning is simple – Mr. Baxter writes rock-hard, cold, almost cruelly realistic science fiction. And in this realm of gritty reality, people tend to be…just that. People. Good, bad, bossy, inspiring, short-tempered, far-sighted, lacking social skills, whatever. And I like that.
I suppose the most important thing about Titan, the thing I loved the most about this book (and what I fell in love with in last year’s Ark & Flood) is the sense of scope that Stephen Baxter brings. Titan makes you realize just how small, how brief, and how precarious life is. Even though it’s a bleak novel, it’s also a wondrous one.
(And if there are any science geeks in the house, YES, this post was planned to coincide with the 5th anniversary of Huygens landing on Titan. You know you love it.)
Notable Quotes/Parts: Check out the first 129 (!!!) pages of Titan for free, thanks to Harper Collins’ awesome Browse Inside Feature:
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Moonseed (Book 3 in the NASA Series)
Publisher: Voyager (UK) / EOS (US)
Publication Date: August 1998 (UK) / October 1999 (US)
Paperback: 672 (US)
Stand alone or series: Technically book 3 in Stephen Baxter’s NASA trilogy, but each book can be read as a stand alone novel.
How did I get this book: Bought
Summary: (from HarperCollins.com)
It Eats Planets. And It’s Here.
It starts when Venus explodes into a brilliant cloud of dust and debris, showering Earth with radiation and bizarre particles that wipe out all the crops and half the life in the oceans, and fry the ozone layer. Days later, a few specks of moon rock kicked up from the last Apollo mission fall upon a lava crag in Scotland. That’s all it takes…
Suddenly, the ground itself begins melting into pools of dust that grow larger every day. For what has demolished Venus, and now threatens Earth itself, is part machine, part life-form: a nano-virus, dubbed Moonseed, that attacks planets.
Four scientists are all that stand between Moonseed and Earth’s extinction, four brilliant minds that must race to cut off the virus and save what’s left of Earth–a pulse-stopping battle for discovery that will lead them from the Earth’s inner core to a daredevil Moon voyage that could save, or damn, us all.
Following Voyage and Titan, Moonseed is the next and final novel in Stephen Baxter’s NASA series. Unlike Voyage, which imagines an alternate past for NASA and space exploration (if JFK wasn’t assassinated and the space program was encouraged to continue in the boom of ambition, even after man landed on the moon) or Titan, which imagines a future in which NASA is throttled by internal politics while a small crew of dedicated men and women make a last, desperate stab to reach Saturn’s largest moon, Moonseed is a good ol’ SF apocalyptic disaster novel. In Moonseed, we see the end of the Earth as we know it – but in Stephen Baxter’s hard SF fashion.
One day, a strange phenomenon occurs in the night sky. A pulsating, bright light indicates that somehow, inexplicably, Venus has exploded. In the short run and in the foreseeable future, scientists and policy makers are concerned about the radiation and how it will affect those on Earth, but are even more mystified as to what could have caused the complete destruction of a planet. Meanwhile, NASA Astronaut Geena Bourne divorces her husband (and something of a work colleague) Geologist Henry Meacher, who goes to Edinburgh to examine some 30 year old samples of moon rock from the Apollo missions. Henry’s analysis uncovers something unfathomable, however, linked to the death of Venus – a finding so immense and apocalyptic, it also means the end of the Earth itself. An ancient, silvery particulate from the moon rock, left over from the formation of the solar system, makes its way outside of the lab and infects Arthur’s Seat, inexplicably eating its way through the ground and waking the 350-million years dormant volcano. The silvery particulate, dubbed “moonseed” – akin to a nanovirus, consuming and converting olivine (one of the most abundant minerals on earth) into a crystalline form – spreads quickly, eating through the Earth’s mantle. As the full brunt of the catastrophe dawns on the rest of the world, Henry and his estranged wife Geena fight to create a future for humanity.
While Titan is a more subdued, slower moving novel that tackles huge ideas on a personal scale, Moonseed is a loud, fast-paced end-of-the-world apocalypse – the blockbuster, Roland Emmerich version, if you will. These are two very different books, but they are equally entertaining and thought provoking. Moonseed rings in at a hefty near-700 pages, but they fly by in an intoxicating blend of technical science, geology, and disaster movie style action. In many ways, the fast paced plot and action-heavy nature makes Moonseed a much more familiar and accessible novel than its predecessor. It certainly makes Moonseed a novel that anyone can pick up and read from cover to cover without getting bored with technicality (though there is a great deal about geology and moon-earth transit technology involved – which is fascinating stuff). In terms of writing, Mr. Baxter packs a hefty punch with Moonseed, with its strong plotting, topped off with a truly awesome – if completely implausible – ending (that I won’t spoil).
In terms of characters, however, I felt Moonseed was a little wanting. Henry and Geena, an estranged, frustrated couple certainly ring as real, flawed humans, but their motivations and reactions feel forced at times. And, as disaster films and fiction are wont to do, there is an exceptionally large cast of secondary characters in this book (cultists, Russian cosmonauts, hippie gemstone retailers, etc.), none of whom really get past their initial, cursory labels. There were also a number of (minor) plot holes I wish had been resolved – for example, there is a huge deal made of one character trying to escape a dying UK for the USA, but time and time again she is thwarted. Yet, a chapter later, she’s in the United States. How exactly did she get there? These are minor issues in comparison to the overarching plot, but are still noticable.
Despite these shortcomings, however, I found Moonseed to be, overall, a wonderful, un-put-down-able read. If pushed, I’d have to say that I preferred Titan, but Moonseed is fabulous in its own way. Definitely recommended, for apocalypse enthusiasts, hard SF fans, and laypeople alike.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read the first 126 pages of Moonseed online, thanks again to Harper Collins’ Browse Inside feature:
Rating: 7 – Very Good
I’m no scientist, but I do love reading about astronomy, astrophysics, and I have season passes set up for Naked Science, The Universe, Nova, and all of Michio Kaku’s documentaries on National Geographic, The History Channel, and The Science Channel. And if you’re an amateur astrophysics geek like myself, you might know that today marks the fifth anniversary of the Huygens probe landing on Titan (after its long journey, Huygens landed on the moon on January 14, 2005). Since then, our perceptions of Titan have changed – and you can read all about Cassini, Titan and Saturn online HERE, via JPL’s awesome interactive website.
You also may have heard that recently, NASA completed the LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) mission to determine if there is water on our own Moon. The mission launched a Centaur upper stage rocket near the Moon’s south pole on October 9, 2009 – and successfully uncovered water. (Mr. Baxter’s predictions are eerily spot on, once again!) You can read all about LCROSS, the initial findings and the future goals of these findings online HERE at NASA’s website.
Reading Next: Starbound by Joe Haderman