Titan 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.
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.
View all my reviews