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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Reading List: Titan

Baxter, Stephen. Titan. New York: Harper Voyager, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-105713-7.
This novel begins in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century. Space shuttle Columbia has been lost in a re-entry accident, and a demoralised NASA has decided to wind down the shuttle program, with whatever is to follow, if anything, ill-defined and subject to the whims of politicians. The Huygens probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan and returned intriguing and enigmatic results which are indicative of a complex chemistry similar, in a way, to the “primordial soup” from which life formed on the ancient Earth. As China approaches economic superpower status, it begins to flex its muscles with a military build-up, an increasingly aggressive posture toward its neighbours in the region, and a human spaceflight program which, while cautious and measured, seems bent on achieving very ambitious goals. In the United States, as the 2008 presidential election approaches, the odds on favourite to prevail is a “thin, jug-eared man of about fifty” (p. 147) with little or no interest in science and technology and an agenda of fundamental transformation of the nation. The younger generation has completely tuned out science, technology, and the space program, and some even advocate a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (p. 450).

Did I mention that this book was published in 1997?

Astronaut Paula Benacerraf has been promoted and given the mission to shut down the space shuttle program in an orderly fashion, disposing of its assets responsibly. Isaac Rosenberg, a JPL scientist working on the Huygens probe results, pitches a mission which will allow the NASA human spaceflight and solar system exploration programs to go out in a heroic effort rather than be ignominiously consigned to museums as relics of a lost age of greatness. Rosenberg (as he prefers to be addressed), argues that a space shuttle should be sent on its final mission to the only place in the solar system where its stubby wings make any sense: Titan. With an atmosphere about 50% more dense than that of the Earth, it is plausible a space shuttle orbiter could make an aerodynamic entry at Titan. (The profile would be very different, however, since Titan's low gravity [just 0.14 g] would mean that entry velocity would be lower and the scale height of the atmosphere much greater than at Earth.)

Benacerraf recruits a cabal within NASA and begins to put together a mission plan, using existing hardware, components under development for future missions, prototypes from laboratories, and legacy gear liberated from museums and static displays, to see if such an absurdly ambitious mission might be possible. They conclude that, while extraordinarily risky, nothing rules it out. With the alternative a humiliating abandonment of human spaceflight, and a crew willing to risk their lives on a mission which may prove one way (their only hope of survival on Titan being resupply missions and of return to Earth a crew rotation mission, none of which would be funded at the time of their departure), the NASA administrator is persuaded to go for it.

This novel begins as a chronicle of an heroic attempt to expand the human presence in the solar system, at a time when the door seems to be closing on the resources, will, and optimistic view of the future such efforts require. But then, as the story plays out, it becomes larger and larger, finally concluding in a breathtaking vista of the destiny of life in the galaxy, while at the same time, a chronicle of just how gnarly the reality of getting there is likely to be. I don't think I've ever read science fiction which so effectively communicated that the life of pioneers who go to other worlds to stay has a lot more in common with Ernest Shackleton than Neil Armstrong.

If you're a regular reader of these remarks, you'll know I enjoy indulging in nitpicking details in near-future hard science fiction. I'm not going to do that here, not because there aren't some things the author got wrong, but because the story is so enthralling and the characters so compelling that I couldn't care less about the occasional goof. Of course NASA would never send a space shuttle to Titan. Certainly if you worked out the delta-V, consumables requirements, long-term storability of propellants, reliability of systems over such an extended mission, and many other details you'd find it couldn't possibly work. But if these natters made you put the book down, you'd deprive yourself of a masterpiece which is simultaneously depressing in its depiction of human folly and inspiring in the heroism of individual people and the human prospect. This is a thick book: 688 pages in the print edition, and I just devoured it, unable to put it down because I couldn't wait to find out what happens next.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition with an optical character recognition program. There are dozens (I noted 49) of the kind of typographical errors one expects from such a process, a few of which I'd expect to have been caught by a spelling checker. I applaud publishers who are bringing out their back-lists in electronic editions, but for a Kindle edition which costs just one U.S. dollar less than the mass market paperback, I believe the reader should be entitled to copy editing comparable to that of a print edition.

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