NESFA Members' Reviews


by Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1997, ISBN 0-06-105259-0

A book review by Elisabeth Carey

This is the story of a manned trip to Titan in the early years of the 21st century, from the same writer that gave us the somewhat depressing, but grippingly realistic and compelling Voyage.

Where shall I start? With the bioengineered anthrax that only attacks Han Chinese? With the ammonia-based beings who manage to revive Our Heroes four billion years after their deaths, with their memories intact?


I'll start with a U.S. Air Force pilot, acting on orders of an Air Force general, attempting to shoot down Endeavor as it takes Our Heroes into orbit to board Discovery and begin the trip to Titan. Not only is nobody court-martialed for this; the effect is to sour the sheeplike public's brief enthusiasm for NASA. It produces no bad effects for the Air Force whatsoever, and only minimally impedes the career of the pilot involved.

There's an impressively lifeless caricature of a right-wing, militaristic, super-patriot politician, whose election we're supposed to believe was inevitable nearly four years out. (When, exactly, was the last time that the "obvious front-runner" immediately after one presidential election was even his party's nominee in the next election? When was the last time one of these "obvious front-runners" was elected in the following election?) He is not given any attractive features whatsoever, and all the characters, both for and against him, treat him like a force of nature. Everyone seems to be terrified of him; no one seems to consider simply voting against him. No other candidates are so much as mentioned. Not even the possibility of other candidates is mentioned.

One character, Jake Hadamard, makes casual reference to "the extension of the Communications Decency Act", which completely shut down the internet until, somewhat later in the book, it is reopened under extremely tight censorship. The shutdown and censored reopening of the net is significant for the background of the book, and it's treated explicitly as an extension of currently-existing law. Now, it might be unfair to expect Baxter to have incorporated the fact of the Supreme Court's June 1997 decision striking down the CDA [his afterword is dated January 1997], but the lower court decision against it was in 1996. Still cutting things unfairly close? Not fair to expect him to incorporate 1996 material in a book turned in no later than January 1997? Well, remember, we're talking about the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It only required minimal attention to what was going on in the country he was writing about to note that the CDA was in trouble almost immediately upon passage and unlikely to survive, and only a few lines needed to be rewritten to attribute the post-2000 shutdown of the internet to some post-1996 law.

The right-wing caricature referred to above, Xavier MacLachlan, gets elected on schedule in 2008. He's a super-patriot, as mentioned above. One of his earliest actions, one year after the launch of the Titan mission [which can't get back on its own; it has to wait for pick-up], is to shut down not only the retrieval mission plans, but also the unmanned resupply launches. This is a popular decision because, of course, Americans are now bored with the Titan mission. Can I have a show of hands on who thinks either the decision or the popular reception of it is plausible? Remember, we're talking about deliberately abandoning five American astronauts in deep space, while they're still transmitting both sound and pictures.

Even though MacLachlan was so popular that his election was inevitable, almost immediately after he takes office parts of the US start seceding. There are some border skirmishes, but no real effort to prevent the secessions. MacLachlan and crew are far too busy, building up the US military in order to confront America's enemies, the Red Chinese, to waste time on secessionists...Uh-huh. Right.

It's not that MacLachlan is a bad guy. It's not that he's a right-wing bad guy. It's not that he's a stupid right-wing bad guy. If that were well done, I'd enjoy it. It's that he's stupid about everything, in wildly implausible ways. It's that he does the stupid or evil thing even when blindly following the hard-right ideology that he is supposed to be completely devoted to would lead him to do something at least different, and probably much smarter. Hard-right ideologues, having gained control of Washington, are not going to be happily indifferent to various pieces of the USA deciding to secede. That's a potential left-wing idiocy, not a right-wing one. MacLachlan's xenophobia is one of his plausible right-wing idiocies; this indifference to secession isn't. It's as if Baxter knows nothing about American politics except that the American political right is Bad Bad Bad. And yet this is not the impression I had after reading Voyage, where the politics seemed depressingly realistic. It's as if Baxter forgot everything that he knew then, and tried to fill the gap by reading the British tabloids' accounts of American politics and popular culture.

In 2012, the Chinese decide that the USA is no longer a major threat, and they attack Taiwan. The US responds (in fact, the secession-fragmented former USA makes a unified, fully integrated military response), there's a war, the Americans are sneakier than the Chinese and have better technology; the Americans win. I had the nagging feeling all through this that something was missing. I finally pinned it down. Japan. The Chinese invade a large offshore island that they claim is historically theres, and no one even mentions the possibility that the Japanese might perhaps express an opinion on the matter. Japan is completely irrelevant to this confrontation. Sure thing.

It seems almost petty to complain about the Chinese being dumb enough to pull the stunt with the asteroid, or to miscalculate and use one that's too big, or to not notice the danger of miscalculating the trajectory. I'm certain it's petty to complain about a portrait of Generation X that identifies as one of its more productive members a young man who produces "art" by gnawing dried shit with his teeth. It would be petty beyond belief to point out that we're told that this is his only skill immediately after he's produced an excellent dinner for eight. Only the small-minded would deign to notice that the noble ammonia-beings of Titan, who decide as their world is about to be destroyed by the still-expanding sun to seed the planets of other stars with both Earth life and Titan life--unlike ignoble humans, who just destroyed everything--almost certainly got the idea from the last two survivors of the Titan mission, who deliberately seeded a water-ice lake with all the organic material from Earth that they had.

I could go on much longer, but why bother? Ignore this one, and hope that Baxter gets back to writing far-future stories.

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