TITAN

by Stephen Baxter

HarperPrism

0-06-105259-0

581pp/$23.00/November 1997

Titan
British Cover by Chris Moore

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Having examined the space program that might have been in Voyage, Stephen Baxter now turns his attention to the future and the space program which might still be. Timed to (roughly) correspond to the launch of the Cassini space probe, Titan looks at the possibility of a manned expedition to Saturn's largest moon.

The novel opens at the seemingly low point of the United States space program. China has just launched their first orbital flight when JPL announces the possibility of life on Titan and the shuttle Columbia crashes at Edwards. The NASA administrator, a short-sighted accountant plans to use the Columbia crash as an excuse to mothball the agency, turn NASA's functions over to the Department of Agriculture (?) and use his "success" at NASA to launch him to a White House advisory position.

Baxter's apparent view of American society and politics is pessimistic in the extreme. He sees the current crop of American youth growing up to be directionless and Ludditic. The Democrat he has in the oval office in 2003 is so inept that everyone in the nation, not only knows that the Republicans will take the White House in 2004, but even know who will take it (early in the novel he refers to the fact that Maclachlan will win in 2004. Baxter's version of the United States Air Force seems to be made up of paranoid, almost rogue, military men.

Into this mix, Baxter injects an optimistic survivor of the Columbia crash, Paula Benacerraf, a visionary JPL scientist, Rosenberg, and a former Moonwalker who wants to relive his glory years when he bounced across Copernicus, Marcus White. They come up with a plan to launch a manned, one-way mission to Titan using the remaining shuttle fleet and vintage Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V launchers. For all their optimism and NASA connections, this group comes across as if they have come across a large, vacant barn and have decided to put on a play.

Titan is well written and has a large, epic, cast of characters, many of whom are likable and well-rounded. The most notable exception would be his depiction of the military characters. Although Baxter proved his knowledge of NASA and American politics in Voyage, much of this information seems to have abandonned him as he set about to write Titan. His vision of the American presidency almost makes it seem like the British Parliamentary system. President Maclachlan's popularity ratings also seem to remain high despite the fact that several states secede from the nation while he is president and he cancels all resupply missions to American astronauts en route to Titan. Although this might add to the dramatic tension, it does so to the detriment of the versimiltude of the novel.

Titan includes an obvious tribute to Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: a space odyssey. Both novels detail a manned mission to Saturn in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Both missions take place aboard spacecraft named Discovery. Unfortunately, Baxter actually weakens this tribute by having Paula Benacerraf actually read Clarke's novel on the journey and point out this similarities. This is one of those cases where Baxter could have been more effective by allowing the links to remain subtle.

The majority of the faults with Titan lie in the details rather than in the plot or the scope. Unfortunately, an epic of this type requires the details to be accurate to make the story interesting and believable for the entire length of the novel. Titan shows that Baxter has continued to grow in his ability to handle the technical details of the space program and writing. Unfortunately, in many ways it seems like a step backwards from Voyage. It will be interesting to see if he intends to continue his exploration of the solar system. If the novels have something more to say than just propound on the need for space exploration, they will be interesting, otherwise, Baxter should turn his attention to other endeavors.

Titan was reasonably enjoyable, however, at 581 pages, it did tend to drag frequently, especially as Benacerraf's team was working on the proposal and ramping up to the launch. Perhaps the biggest problem Titan was its pacing. Although it may take 2460 days for Discovery's crew to reach Saturn, the reader shouldn't be made to feel that it is taking them the same six years to complete the novel.


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