TitanTitan by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story is well-written.

 

It is the turn of the twenty-first century.

The United States is dysfunctional. “United” may once again be questioned as in 1860.

The nation turns inward, isolationist. Peacekeepers are recalled from the Balkans. The internet available to the public is filtered into practically nothing. The President is dismantling NASA; American isolationism is cosmic as well as terrestrial.

Agriculture is barely balanced atop the blade of a scythe as the surprise of widespread blight and drought threatens essential crops.

NASA, in a death-rattle, is riven with infighting as various programs compete for full funding before there is no funding.

The President deems the mission of American space travel no longer is exploration; it is only near-Earth-orbit (NEO) communications and defense. And these missions will be handed over to the Air Force when NASA is gone.

Youth are alienated and seem completely apathetic. Practically the only exception is technology. Youth actively stigmatize technology as dehumanizing. Those most-actively opposed to technology express their opposition to technology through the use of highly-advanced technology.

As the U.S. looks inward, the People’s Republic of China– despite rampant rural famine and rampant urban organized crime and corruption– ambitiously looks outward. As the U.S. decimates its space program, China vigorously-grows its space program. China successfully boosts its first astronaut into NEO.

The Director of NASA– a former business executive, not a scientist– is not a True Believer Who Drank the Kool-Aid. He simply is doing the job for which he was appointed: closing shop.

Then, a stereo-typically socially-challenged engineer at NASA-ally JPL (California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory) finds evidence of life on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Of course, he lobbies for a human quest to Titan to investigate the evidence,despite the obvious and overwhelming odds.

The Director– in a oh-what-the-heck-why-not decision (may be his own apathy?)– defies authority and zeitgeist, moves the checkers around the funding board and manages to consolidate funding for this NASA Last Hurrah.

But how?

The journey would take years. Humans have traveled in space but a sliver of the distance and time it would take to get to Titan. What would be the health risks of years of close-confinement? What would be the health risks of years of zero-gravity? Indeed, does the human exist who could survive this journey?

Then, after the human element, there’s the mechanical element. NASA has no operational extra-earth-orbit vehicles. No-one has extra-earth-orbit propulsion, so, extra-earth-orbit travel would be as it ever was: a simple, slow softball-lob, ballistics. Also needed would be the refurbishment of all-but-worn-out Moon-era boosters that, for decades, have been NASA lawn ornaments. And don’t even mention the two 800-pound invisible gorillas in the room: how do we attempt underway-replenishment? How do we attempt to get the astronauts safely home?

Within the funding allocated and existing technology, NASA can only try to cobble-together a human Titan journey with practically worn-out Shuttles on the verge of decommissioning, and the resurrection of some huge lawn ornaments. And, the Shuttle was designed only for, and thus has only has been used for, NEO missions.

“The plan is so crazy, it must be true”, as says the proverb.

And so the plan proceeds. One shuttle is ripped to the bones and another undergoes attempted renovation. And an attempt is made to return the lawn ornaments to operational extra-earth-orbit boosters.

Would the Air Force just stand idly by watching this Swan Song? And would the President and the entire military just stand idly by as Chinese ambitions rise and spread?

“Some of the results were unexpected”.

That’s the last sentence in the book’s prologue.
It describes the entire story.

A potential reader with an engineering bent-might enjoy the primers on how to try to return lawn ornaments to operational status, and how to try to make vehicles designed only for orbit, as-far-as-possible fit for extra-orbit travel. Others might just be able to tolerate these. A potential reader with a bent toward biology might enjoy the primers on the molecular elements of life. Others might choose not to tolerate it.Some may enjoy what is– in my opinion– a whiplash from the physical to the metaphysical. Others might just be able to tolerate it.

The story– perhaps unexpectedly– blossoms into an epic, what this author tends toward, so I’m told. Some might enjoy a story of this breadth, depth, and length. Others might not care to tolerate it.

Thus, I would think twice or thrice before recommending this book.

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The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A better exploration of the pathways of the mind and where they might lead I cannot recall.

The many reader-comments this is all aberrant psychology, and each character is repulsive, I disagree.

Rather, I believe, some are repulsed by at least the fear of the possibility of such thoughts.

Further, some may be repulsed by conscious or otherwise recognition of such aberrant thoughts, be these thoughts rare, occasional, or established patterns. Such thoughts occur to some degree and frequency in practically every mind, I would submit.

Or I could very well be “projecting”, the correct psychological term, I think.

Anyway…

…I empathize with those confused by the book’s unusual style of multiple first-person narratives. And the most confusion, I think, is the one narrative seeming out-of-sync with the others.

Alert: Some may consider the following a spoiler
My recommendation: try to see the narrative threads as a braid. Two are the same length while one is simply longer than the others. All threads join equally at the head of the braid; one thread simply starts earlier and therefore is longer; the one thread has a longer “tail”, if you will.
/Alert

To further clarify, making notes of narratives and their interactions in the early chapters also might might help. Then, once the reader “catches the braid”, the reader will find comprehension without the aid of notes, and, thus, interested engagement with the plot and the characters throughout the rest of the book. I hope these comments help. If so, at the conclusion, I hope the reader will see, conventional narrative styles could not have told this tale, or sparked engagement and immediacy, half as well as this unusual– and, to my limited knowledge, innovative– “braid” style.

One of my bachelor’s double-majors is journalism. A good journalist, like a good novelist, is a master of psychology. Ms. Hawkins no-doubt refined to an eagle’s eye her psychological insight during her years as a journalist. Now she has put that eagle’s eye to masterful effect in this fine novel.

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The Time ShipsThe Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’ve got the time, Baxter has the book.

This is a winning combination for fans of historical fiction, epics, science fiction, and, of course, specifically time-travel fiction.

The tale is awesome in scope. Some enjoy any of the above-mentioned genres, but are rightly-repelled by the potential pitfalls of voluminous stories. My recommendation: try it anyway. Not one page is wasted, not even those discussing the physics and metaphysics of time travel, the creation and nature of the universe, and their direction of the plot. The book’s discussions of physics and metaphysics are appropriate, rare, concise, objective, and credible to the layperson.

Digression: thus, I would love to hear the opinions of this book of Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Stephen Hawking!

And, I would recommend, remember the premise of this project: to faithfully emulate the work of a master in the 19th century, a time when informed-discussion tended toward the bloated and grandiose anyway.

And that which makes the book lengthy– the incredible number and character of events and people potentially populating time travel– are compelling.

The characters are endearing. We care about what happens to them. So, we gladly keep reading. This also makes the story compelling. And, in my opinion, such affinity with the characters is imperative in any fiction.

A personal note: in any story, whatever the medium, if by Act II, I don’t care about the characters and their destiny– there is no empathy or sympathy– I drop it. It isn’t worth my time.

But that’s just me.

The book may be too lengthy for a summer beach-read. But summer is almost finished here Up-Over, anyway! Meaning it will fill your workaday reading-for-pleasure allotment enjoyable for quite a while.

Conclusion: this book is a worthwhile diversion. I recommend it.

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