Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Recently, there has been a spate of novels and short stories which focus on the idea of an alternate space program. Among these are Allen Steele's Tranquillity Alternative and Stephen Baxter & Simon Bradshaw's "Prospero One". Some of these work and some do not. Similarly, the number of books about Mars has been astronomical lately, ranging from Kim Stanley Robinson's Spectral Mars series to Ben Bova's Mars to others too numerous to mention. Examining the first trend, I think part of the reason for these novels, as well as recent films such as "Apollo 13" is the realization that the shuttle fleet is aging. Although there are plans for the future, none are coming to fruition. The public also has a yearning sense of nostalgia for a time when we could achieve technological miracles. These books and movies try to capture the sense of adventure and ability which is missing from much of the modern world.
The movie "Apollo 13" was based on the memoirs of James Lovell, published as Lost Moon. Stephen Baxter's new novel, Voyage (previously announced as Ares) could as easily been called Lost Mars. Baxter's alternative begins with Lee Harvey Oswald's assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Although Kennedy is hit, he survives, Jacqueline Kennedy taking the fatal bullet. Kennedy's injuries, however, force him to relinquish his office to Lyndon Johnson and act as a cheerleader for the space program he began as president. The space program then continues much as in our world, including the landing of Neil Armstrong and Joe Muldoon on the Moon on July 20, 1969. Baxter's changes come slowly, as if to say the inertia of history must be taken into account. Eventually, Nixon, at Kennedy's urgings, chooses a Mars program instead of merely the shuttle program he chose in our timeline.
Voyage is an epic. As such, it has a large cast of characters,both real and fictitious. It also spans a period of time from 1963 to 1986. Unfortunately, Baxter chooses to jump back and forth through time to tell his story. A scene from the Ares launch in 1985 will be sandwiched between scenes of Armstrong and Muldoon on the Moon in 69 and Apollo 13 in 70. At times, this causes a disjointed narrative, leading the reader to pause in order to figure out the sequence of events, identities of characters or a character's age at the time something occurs. Another problem with this type of epic is that very few authors can make each storyline interesting for all readers. This means that the book bogs down whenever Baxter turns his attention to a storyline which is not of particular interest to a given reader.
One of the problems is that Baxter reveals who the Mars team is very early in the story. This takes away a major point of suspense from the novel. When a different Mars team is announced, the reader is already aware that changes will be made before launch date, only leaving the details up for suspense. On the other hand, this technique gives the book a certain historical feel. The reader already knows what happened and is just getting the details, as if reading an history of the Apollo program or the Space Shuttle.
Baxter does have several interesting episodes in the story. Although he glosses over the Apollo 13 incident, he practically re-creates it with the test flight of Apollo-N, the first nuclear powered spacecraft. However, Baxter's NASA recovers from the spectacular Apollo-N failure much more rapidly than the real NASA recovered from the Challenger explosion. Although Baxter portrays the fall out of such a catastrophe well in political terms, his incident does not stop the space program the way the Challenger explosion halted the real space program.
One interesting aspect of Baxter's Mars Program is that it points out that we have a pretty good and thorough space program even without having landed a man on Mars. We probably know more about Mars than Baxter's astronauts did before they began their mission. Unlike the real world, Baxter's NASA had to scrap most of their unmanned missions, including Mariners, Voyagers, Hubble and the Space Shuttle. In return, they gained Moonlab (in orbit, Apollo 14 was the last lunar mission), and a single shot Mars program.
Baxter's main interest is the alternate space program, although he does spend some time giving hints about the American political scene. Kennedy survived in 63 (although Jackie was killed). He stepped down and Johnson served until 68, when Nixon took over. Baxter's world seems to lack a Watergate, although Carter (with running mate Ted Kennedy) wins a single term in 76, to be replaced by Ronald Reagan in 1980, partly due to the Iran hostages. In 1984, Reagan defeats T. Kennedy to gain re-election. Each of these elections, and changes, effects the space program, Ted Kennedy is much more pro-space the reality's Walter Mondale. Nevertheless, as previously mentioned, the space program in the book is less ambitious, in many ways, than our space program.
There are other areas where Baxter's view of history seems askew. NASA only sends three astronauts to Mars for an eighteen month trip. They include America's first African-American on his second trip and the first female astronaut on her first. Furthermore, the there is definite friction and dislike between the astronauts, but no sign of a NASA psychologist to determine if the three will be able to make the trip to Mars without trying to kill each other. Although Baxter gives reasonably credible explanations, the make-up of the crew is extremely curious.
Baxter's interest in Voyage was the realistic depiction of an alternative space program. He demonstrates this in the final section of the book. Although willing to make a variety of speculations about NASA, when it comes to exploring Mars, Baxter takes the advice his geologist astronaut Natalie York gives to her fellow astronauts, "don't speculate, just give the facts." His crew is on Mars for a mere 12 pages, just over 2% of the novel's length.
In general, Voyage is a good book, slow at times, but one of the best chronicles of a space program that never was to come out. The characters are generally likeable and realistic, even if their circumstances are not always true to life. Baxter writes as if he worked in Houston at Johnson, giving a believability to the bureaucrats and astronauts who made the space program happen. This last is part of the problem with the novel. Baxter spends too much time focusing on the bureaucrats who, despite their fascinating topic, are the same as bureaucrats in any other field.
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