Titan – Stephen Baxter
I am an optimist at heart. While I recognise that there are many things wrong with the world at the moment, I do believe we still have the power to overcome many of these problems before things really go to hell. Certainly when reading Titan, which was published in 1997 and whose timeline extends into the current year and beyond, I couldn’t help but reflect that we could be a lot worse off than we are right now. The setting of Titan is something of a worst-case scenario for the human race, but still unnerving.
Space exploration, at least, could definitely be worse off. We may not have any concrete plans for going back to the Moon or landing on Mars, but we have a successful manned outpost in Earth orbit, we have some exciting unmanned missions on the go, and given that the Curiosity rover has over 1.5 million followers on Twitter, it’s safe to assume that a fair number of people are still interested in this subject. In Titan, things aren’t so good.
By the time the story starts, NASA is suffering severe cutbacks, and faces an almost-total shutdown after the space shuttle Columbia is destroyed while returning to Earth. (Did I mention this was published in 1997?) Along with this, the USA is on course to elect a president who is not only anti-space but anti-science in general, and tensions are mounting with China. Among all this, a team of specialists decide to pull together all the existing technology they can find and throw together one last big spaceflight: a mission to Saturn’s moon, Titan, which may contain the right chemistry for life.
Stephen Baxter comes from an engineering background, and he’s clearly put a lot of work into researching this book. He does as well as he can depicting Titan itself, considering that the Cassini-Huygens mission was years away from getting there at the time, and all the spacecraft and technologies involved are as realistic as they can be – it’s fascinating how the characters jury-rig all the old equipment they have to work with, as well as coming up with new systems. Unfortunately, the book has a tendency to get bogged down in detail: while the detail in question is not exactly irrelevant, and mostly interesting, there were times when I was thinking, “Can we please just get on with the story?” There are some particularly slow parts towards the end where too much time is spent describing the landscape of Titan rather than what the astronauts are heading towards.
Doing the Start Writing Fiction course has given me new perspective on looking at characters, and Titan doesn’t really do very well character-wise. The Titan team consists of five astronauts, only one of which – Rosenberg – can be called well-developed and interesting. Paula, who is the main character, is too generic – she’s the most professional and plausible astronaut there, but that doesn’t make her interesting. (There’s a reason why Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity is so full of conflict even though such an openly troubled person wouldn’t really be suited to being an astronaut in real life.) As for the other three, I couldn’t really say I understood them, or could properly picture them. Most of the other characters who stay back on Earth are rather flat, too. Among the antagonists is an evil Air Force officer who is so cliché I half expected him to accuse NASA of putting fluorides in his drinking water to render him impotent.
For all its flaws, Titan is still a very interesting story for the space enthusiast, however, and has a particularly fascinating ending which gives a new perspective on the purpose of space flight. If you’re not already interested in this subject matter, however (and maybe even if you are), you’re going to struggle. Rating: 3/5.