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Saturday, December 14, 2019

Reading List: Europa's Lost Expedition

Carroll, Michael. Europa's Lost Expedition. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2017. ISBN 978-3-319-43158-1.
In the epoch in which this story is set the expansion of the human presence into the solar system was well advanced, with large settlements on the Moon and Mars, exploitation of the abundant resources in the main asteroid belt, and research outposts in exotic environments such as Jupiter's enigmatic moon Europa, when civilisation on Earth was consumed, as so often seems to happen when too many primates who evolved to live in small bands are packed into a limited space, by a global conflict which the survivors, a decade later, refer to simply as “The War”, as its horrors and costs dwarfed all previous human conflicts.

Now, with The War over and recovery underway, scientific work is resuming, and an international expedition has been launched to explore the southern hemisphere of Europa, where the icy crust of the moon is sufficiently thin to provide access to the liquid water ocean beneath and the complex orbital dynamics of Jupiter's moons were expected to trigger a once in a decade eruption of geysers, with cracks in the ice allowing the ocean to spew into space, providing an opportunity to sample it “for free”.

Europa is not a hospitable environment for humans. Orbiting deep within Jupiter's magnetosphere, it is in the heart of the giant planet's radiation belts, which are sufficiently powerful to kill an unprotected human within minutes. But the radiation is not uniform and humans are clever. The main base on Europa, Taliesen, is located on the face of the moon that points away from Jupiter, and in the leading hemisphere where radiation is least intense. On Europa, abundant electrical power is available simply by laying out cables along the surface, in which Jupiter's magnetic field induces powerful currents as they cut it. This power is used to erect a magnetic shield around the base which protects it from the worst, just as Earth's magnetic field shields life on its surface. Brief ventures into the “hot zone” are made possible by shielded rovers and advanced anti-radiation suits.

The present expedition will not be the first to attempt exploration of the southern hemisphere. Before the War, an expedition with similar objectives ended in disaster, with the loss of all members under circumstances which remain deeply mysterious, and of which the remaining records, incomplete and garbled by radiation, provide few clues as to what happened to them. Hadley Nobile, expedition leader, is not so much concerned with the past as making the most of this rare opportunity. Her deputy and long-term collaborator, Gibson van Clive, however, is fascinated by the mystery and spends hours trying to recover and piece together the fragmentary records from the lost expedition and research the backgrounds of its members and the physical evidence, some of which makes no sense at all. The other members of the new expedition are known from their scientific reputations, but not personally to the leaders. Many people have blanks in their curricula vitae during the War years, and those who lived through that time are rarely inclined to probe too deeply.

Once the party arrive at Taliesen and begin preparations for their trip to the south, a series of “accidents” befall some members, who are found dead in circumstances which seem implausible based upon their experience. Down to the bare minimum team, with a volunteer replacement from the base's complement, Hadley decides to press on—the geysers wait for no one.

Thus begins what is basically a murder mystery, explicitly patterned on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, layered upon the enigmas of the lost expedition, the backgrounds of those in the current team, and the biosphere which may thrive in the ocean beneath the ice, driven by the tides raised by Jupiter and the other moons and fed by undersea plumes similar to those where some suspect life began on Earth.

As a mystery, there is little more that can be said without crossing the line into plot spoilers, so I will refrain from further description. Worthy of a Christie tale, there are many twists and turns, and few things are as the seem on the surface.

As in his previous novel, On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea (December 2016), the author, a distinguished scientific illustrator and popular science writer, goes to great lengths to base the exotic locale in which the story is set upon the best presently-available scientific knowledge. An appendix, “The Science Behind the Story”, provides details and source citations for the setting of the story and the technologies which figure in it.

While the science and technology are plausible extrapolations from what is presently known, the characters sometimes seem to behave more in the interests of advancing the plot than as real people would in such circumstances. If you were the leader or part of an expedition several members of which had died under suspicious circumstances at the base camp, would you really be inclined to depart for a remote field site with spotty communications along with all of the prime suspects?

Posted at December 14, 2019 21:17