Titan by Stephen Baxter

This is one of those deep deep science fiction reads; lots of science and engineering concepts that must’ve taken an eon to research and tie together into a story.

Titan tells the tale of the first manned expedition to Titan – one of Saturn’s moons that is believed to be capable of supporting life. (The scientists have evidence that somewhere on the moon, something is breathing.)

Now, this definitely isn’t the same kind of adventure as the galaxy spanning Noumenon Trilogy, where thousands of highly-trained clones set off highly advanced starships, on a journey that will take centuries to complete.

No, this book starts in 2008, and takes a handful of astronauts on a six-year journey to a Titan, travelling on an old shuttle cobbled together from whatever parts NASA has lying around, before the whole Administration is subsumed by the US Department of Agriculture.

Needless to say, no one (least of all, the astronauts) expects the team to return. Indeed, they all signed on knowing that, in all likelihood, the mission is a one-way trip.

The story covers a lot: starting with the planning, then the launch, and then the journey, with the crew (who seemed to barely know each other) crammed together in their tiny shuttle (“claustrophobic” doesn’t begin to describe), while home on Earth, things are going to hell). Christian Fundamentalism sweeps across the US, and the crew finds out that their planned resupply and eventual retrieval from Titan have been put on permanent hold. …

This is classic Stephen Baxter. Titan is hardcore sci-fi with plenty of tech (none of it advanced) and astrophysics thrown in for good measure. Some of it was hard to follow, even after four or five reads, but that’s more to do with me than the story-telling.

The depth of characterisation gets a pass – but only just. I felt that finding room for all the astrophysics lectures little space for character development. Again, the characters were believable, if not a little bland.

One thing I will say though: the events back on Earth were as gripping as those on the shuttle. While they were travelling, the home planet was going to hell. Understandably, the crew didn’t seem particularly phased by this, which is perhaps unsurprising since they had real problems of their own: muscle wastage due to microgravity, malnutrition due to crop blight, and not forgetting that after years crammed together in a tiny antiquated space shuttle, they were really getting in each others’ nerves.

And I think that’s part of the problem I had with the story. Yeah, I know it was science-fiction, but I just found the idea that NASA would allow five (just five!) people to attempt a such a journey in a tiny shuttle just a bit of a stretch. And not forgetting that five people would sign up for a cut-price space shot like that.

It was a good book: well written, and the science and the geopolitics made it believable – except for the part about actually undertaking the mission in the first place.

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