BOOK REVIEW: "Titan" by Stephen Baxter (1997)

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Much as I like Stephen Baxter, This is a negative review.

It's also about twice as long as my normal book reviews. Oh, sure, I could start off my review by saying "This is a bad book," and making a couple cheap jokes at its expense, and then wrap it up quick, saving everyone a lot of time and effort, but this book is just so unfathomably bad that I feel the need to pin it to the specimen board and have at it with an X-acto knife for a while, just to try and figure out what internal organs it could have that could possibly make it taste so wretched and bitter. Having slogged through the thing, I feel the need not only to say 'it sucks,' but I feel also somehow compelled to prove its badness to you in some cautionary fashion that would not only keep you from wasting your time reading it, but also might make you turn up your nose in distaste should you find it someone's home. This is a book that is so bad it made me want to punch someone. Repeatedly.

The book starts off with the Cassini probe getting to Saturn, which happened in 2004, The next chapter had a harrowing space shuttle disaster involving the Columbia, which killed a bunch of astronauts. True, it wasn't like the real Columbia disaster in 2002, but it was close enough that it made me flip back to the cover to check the publication date: 1997 – the same year Cassini was launched. Baxter has a coincidental knack for picking disasters that are oddly parallel to reality. Witness, for instance, the Apollo-N disaster from his novel, Voyage, which left a bunch of astronauts and cosmonauts stranded in a space station, oddly similar to the way the real-world Columbia disaster effectively stranded people in the ISS. Prescient? Not really. The details in both cases are very different from the ones in the books, but it's still vaguely creepy.

Now, I love Stephen Baxter. He's got his problems, of course: his style is rather restrained and dry, his characterization is occasionally self-consciously thin, and his American characters frequently act in very British fashion, presumably since Baxter, himself, is a Brit. Even still, these shortcomings are offset by his ideas, which are generally grand and amazing: Voyage is the most inventive Alternate History I've ever read, and it motivated me to start writing again. (review: http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Cvoyage%E2%80%9D-s... ) The Time Ships is a sequel to The Time Machine that Wells himself would be proud of, and even his occasional potboilers like Moonseed have some memorably impressive moments, even if they aren't very good. Thus, though several people had already warned me off of reading Titan, I figured I'd give it a go. How bad could it be?

Well, folks, I'm here to tell you that it is worse than you could possibly think. It's Terrible. Really just terrible.

PLAY BY PLAY

It starts off with what is an essentially current event – the Cassini probe and the harrowing and well-written shuttle disaster, and I was hooked. The Columbia catches fire on re-entry and the crew bail out. The bail-out procedure – an actual NASA contingency that's never been tried – kills one of the astronauts, but the others get away ok. The Mission Commander, who in typical Baxter fashion, is the last active-duty Apollo Astronaut, decides not to bail out, and rather to try and land the crippled aircraft. He almost does it, but stalls out on final approach and dies. Ok, so it's not what happened in reality, but it's a good scene just the same, even if it's not dead-on-the-money prognostication. The problem that quickly sets in is that the book is like some weird literary version of Xenos' Paradox of the Egg: the more you read, the less happens, and the longer it goes on, the less interesting it is, until, in the end, you've spent an inordinate amount of time to come to a complete halt without ever actually achieving anything.

But I digress. Let's just pick a problem that Baxter has and run with that and see where it leads us. Let's take Prognostication, shall we?

Prognostication is a problem for Baxter. Now, despite all the trekie's claims to the contrary, it is not now, nor has it ever been the job of SF to realistically portray the future. No SF writer has ever done a really good job of this, and those few who got some of the details right by coincidence generally got the broad picture dead wrong. For instance, the feeble-minded will talk about how Verne accurately predicted American missions to the moon, even getting such specific details right as sending three people to the moon from a launch in Florida. Well, swell, but he sent them there in a bullet launched out of a 900 foot cannon, and not a capsule attached to a 360 foot rocket, and they were sent without any government interest in the project whatsoever (The Lunar Program was financed by the Baltimore Gun Club), and, of course, he send them to the moon in 1870, 99 years too early. Oh, and there's a sizable digression about how the earth has two moons, the bigun' and a tiny one we just somehow never notice. That's really not terribly accurate, now is it?

I don't hold that against him – he tells a good story, and likewise I don't hold it against Ray Bradbury that we hadn't extensively colonized Mars in the 1980s, nor do I hold it against Heinlein that we didn't get to the moon in the 1950s. As I say, it's not their job to accurately foretell the future. It is, however, their job to tell an entertaining and thought-provoking story that's set in an internally consistent and at least reasonably plausible world. Note the key words in that sentence.

For instance, if, after the Columbia Disaster, Baxter had the Space Program discover a means of getting into space that involved temple prostitutes and offering sacrifices to Baal, that would not be terribly plausible. (Remember, this book was written before Obama took office and NASA adopted its present "Baal and hookers to Mars" program) Likewise, if in the course of the story, the United States crumbles in Civil War, and yet is still described as a 'prosperous and affluent' country, that would not be internally consistent. Affluence and Civil War are generally mutually exclusive, unless you're an arms dealer.

A degree of fudging is allowable. After all, you've got an idea of where you want the story to go in your head, and since you're writing pulp fiction, not literature, you need to occasionally make people or events do things that might not seem ordinary or realistic in order to force the story to go where you want it to. A good author can do this without the reader really noticing. A bad author fills the reader with annoyance and the urge to yell "Oh, come on!" in a Tom Hanks-like way. Previously, Baxter has always done this sort of thing well, but in this book there are more than a couple "Oh, come on!" moments. Also, though I don't generally hold folks accountable for faulty predictions of the future, Baxter does such a bad job of it in this book that that it's really distracting. In fact, it's so bad that I found the only thing that held my interest was trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Truly, this is a book that's so awful that it's hard not to try and psychoanalyze the author by reading it.

Seriously, everything in this book is depicted as bad. The Columbia Disaster is Bad. The ISS is Bad. Modern Art is bad. The Youth of Today is Bad. Baby Boomers are BAD. The Religious Right is Bad. Liberalism is Bad. NASA is Bad. The United States is Bad. China is Bad. The Military is Bad. Everything is Bad, Bad, Bad. I'm not being facetious about this, and in fact, I'd even agree that some of the above really are Bad, but Good Golly Gertrude, is there anything that Mr. Baxter likes? Everything is described as derisively as possible. I've read a lot of novels – SF ones included – where very very bad things happen, where the bad guys win, where the human race goes extinct, but these are told in an interesting and compelling fashion. This novel is like being trapped in a broken elevator with a sour-headed curmudgeon who just won't shut up about how the universe is inherently not to his liking. It gets old fast.

Anyway, here's the plot: Cassini reaches Saturn, and its Huygens sub-probe lands on Titan sees signs of possible life. Almost simultaneously, the Columbia crashes, killing two, and the Chinese launch their first person into space – a woman who isn't strictly speaking Chinese, as unlikely as that sounds. The disaster ankles the space program and its director - a corporate raider type – selects one of the survivors of the Columbia to figure out what to do with the three remaining shuttles.

The ISS is abandoned in a scene that introduces some lesbian astronauts for no real reason I can ascertain. I mean, Baxter makes a point of pointing out their lesbianism, but then he does nothing else with it in the remainder of the book. There's no clear explanation as to why the Russians allow us to do this. I mean, we're contractually obligated to finish the station, and the Russians are already pinch hitting for us in the real world, and continuing to service the thing using their Soyuz spacecraft. Why the loss of the Shuttle Program necessitates forever abandoning the station just a month later makes no sense, and is never explained.

Also rather inexplicably: the ISS is far smaller and less-complete than it is in reality. Sure, in reality, the station is far behind schedule, but in the book, the Station is barely farther along than it was in 1998.

A Jewish scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory decides a manned expedition to Titan should be launched, and a quickly-assembled cadre of NASA folk decides that, yeah, it really can be done. Now, launching a manned mission to a moon of another planet may seem ridiculous when you can't even maintain a piece of crap space station in low orbit, but Baxter glosses over this. Thus a space agency that's repeatedly said to be winding down and no longer wants to put people in space launches a ludicrously expensive manned voyage to Titan. The trip will take seven years, and carry a crew of six, and as it's essentially a one-way mission, what it really amounts to is a Federally-funded assisted suicide. Not only would NASA never support such a mission, the Federal Government would never allow them to do it, and, for that matter, I'm reasonably certain that public opinion would get the expedition scrapped long before it even got off the drawing board, but, once again, Baxter glosses over this. In a painfully obvious homage to Arthur C. Clarke, The Space Shuttle Discovery is retrofitted to make the actual trip to Saturn, its cargo bay filled with modules from the ISS to give a bit more food and living space. Unused surplus Apollo capsules will be used to take the crew down to the surface of Titan while the Discovery itself lands on autopilot.

In fact, there's no adequate reason ever given as to why Discovery couldn't take the crew down with her when she lands, but Baxter's got an absolute fetish for the Apollo Program, and will jump at any chance, no matter how tendentious, to throw Apollo hardware into his stories. There are also a lot of scenes of them taking the unused Saturn V rockets and using them to launch fuel canisters for the mission, and suchlike, and they even manage to throw the long-abandoned Shuttle-C concept into the story. (This also turned up in "Moonseed." He likes Shuttle-C. I'll forgive him that, I like it too)

Defying any kind of reason, a rogue Air Force General uses an X-15 rocket plane which has been hanging in a museum for 35 years to try and shoot down the Discovery upon liftoff.

Finally the Discovery leaves for Titan with its crew of four pointless straw men and two actual characters. At this point, the book starts to divide its focus between the Discovery's mission and various Secondary Characters back on Earth, and it's at this point that the story really falls apart. For starters, nothing of any real interest happens aboard the Discovery. A lesbian astronaut dies of radiation exposure, but fortunately they have a spare; they exercise a lot, a male astronaut goes crazy. It's not really compelling stuff, and no one behaves in any way that's recognizably human.

Trapped in a spacecraft the size of a greyhound bus for seven years and no one even seems to think of having sex. Well, the lesbianauts do, but one of them is killed off quickly.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the world starts behaving in ways that defy any kind of logic. Despite the fact that the X-15-attempted shot at a Space Shuttle on national TV, there are exactly no repercussions from this whatsoever. The internet is shut down due to religious pressure, and then is re-opened as a total virtual-reality dealie. People start to decorate their houses with TV screens which sounds rather cool, actually, but which we're told is a Baxterian Bad Thing. A Religious Whacko is elected president, which turns the country into a virtual theocracy. He opposes the space program, and vetoes any funding for them, or for attempting to rescue the Discovery crew. He also insists that only medieval cosmology be taught in schools, really! A geocentric universe! Baxter seems unaware that American Presidents really don't have that kind of power.

Anyway, this leads to the Pacific Northwest seceding from the US and forming a new country called "New Columbia." This annoyed me more than it had any right to, as that region already has a perfectly good name: "Cascadia," after the Cascade Mountains. Calling it "New Columbia" is just stupid and fake. It's like if Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island decided to form their own country and called it, I dunno, "New Atlantis" or "Humanitaria" or some such crapulence – I mean, come on! That region is already called "New England," obviously that's the name they'd use!

"New Columbia" leaves the US, and there is absolutely no attempt to force it to rejoin! Given the whole "Southern" thing that was in all the papers 145 years ago, I'm here to tell you, ya' just can't get away with that kind of stuff. Even more incoherently, "New Columbia," which left the US to get away from the religious dictatorship there, keeps the same mideval educational system that the US has adopted! So what was the point? Meanwhile, the United States is said to still be a prosperous and wealthy country, despite having lost at least four states including Alaska.

Meanwhile, there's some bunk about the Ozone layer being completely destroyed – remember we're only talking 5 years in our own future – 2009 or so – and a recurring theme of how "Global Warming" is causing "Less Rain." In fact, Global Warming causes much more rain, since there's (A) more liquid water in the biosphere and (B) heated air can hold more moisture than cooler air, but, ok, fine, whatever, Stephen Baxter knows a lot about space, but nothing about Earth Sciences I guess. Anyway, for some dumbass reason this "lack of rain" causes China to go to war with Taiwan. The US declares war on China, and easily wins, killing several hundred million Chinese.

China reacts in the only way left to it: by launching a deep space exploration mission to push an asteroid at the Atlantic Ocean and kill everyone in "The West." This they then do, and we get scenes of destruction pretty much straight out of "Deep Impact." World War IV ensues, and, evidently, the human race goes extinct.

You see what I'm getting at about how no one in this book acts like a human being? On the one hand, we're told that "New Columbia" is every bit as much a Christian dictatorship as America is, but then we're told that gay marriages and operations to allow homosexual men to have babies are perfectly normal there. Huh? What?

In the US Euthanasia Booths are on every street corner to deal with the overpopulation problem. What? A Christian Dictatorship that supports Suicide? Has Baxter never met a Conservative Christian? He doesn't seem to know that those ideas just don't go together, yet he spends a lot of time pillorying Conservative Christians as an enemy to rational thought which will destroy our country from within in a way far more offensive than even Madeline Murray O'Hare used to do. (To soften the blow a bit, he lumps dopey new agers in with Christians, so, what, all religion is inherently evil? Then what are we to make of the Christian Cosmonaut in "Moonseed?")

Meanwhile, his portrayal of the Chinese is vaguely racist. It's not overtly "They're subhuman", but it's definitely early cold war "The yellow menace" kind of stuff. Meanwhile, he promotes vaguely deviant sex – homosexuality and whatnot - as being hunkie dorie, and elsewhere in the book, he villainizes it. The US seems to be run by 80-year-old Generals and 70-year-old fighter pilots, and China is run by a 104 year old party chairman. None of it makes a lick of sense, other than Baxter wants the human race to end abruptly because it's important to his plot.

Meanwhile, back in space, the crazy astronaut goes blind and their spare lesbian dies in a crash-landing on Titan. The three remaining astronauts land, and make their way to the already-landed Discovery, and then nothing much interesting happens to them for a while, other than they're now incredibly boring people on a moon, rather than incredibly boring people in space. Eventually the Blind Astronaut goes crazy again, and tries to rape the mission commander – an elderly woman – so they kill him, which leaves us with just the Elderly Woman and the Jewish Guy from JPL. Again more uninteresting stuff transpires, including possibly the longest, most boring cross-country hike I've ever read about, and then the Jewish Guy abruptly dies because he ate too many baby carrots.

No, you didn't read that wrong, it really is that stupid.

Then the last member of the human race, an elderly woman, goes on another cross-country hike to seed some frozen lakes with bacteria from earth so that when the sun expands into a red giant star several billion years hence, the lake will thaw out and perhaps life will evolve from it. Then she dies.

It's just that stupid!

Now, you'd expect that to be the end of the book, but noooo, there's a bewildering coda about how aliens eventually do evolve on Titan, they discover the frozen bodies of the Grandmother and the Jewish Guy, and resurrect them. Really. Absolutely nothing comes of this, but we follow them around for like 45 pages or so. Then we're told that planets orbiting nearby stars have been seeded with biological materials from the long-dead earth and from Titan, so life will continue in the universe. Then it finally ends. Whatever.

OBSERVATIONS

This is just a crapy book. The author gives us no new ideas here, nothing of any interest, nor any kind of compelling story. The characters are bland and boring and pointless, and everyone, everyone, everyone thinks to themselves in these halting, annoying kind of self-conflicted internal dialogs that are instantly grating. Essentially, Baxter is working out his aggressions at a bunch of things he doesn't understand – Americans, Religious Folk, Baby Boomers, Politics, Mass Culture, the Military – and stringing together the lamest B-movie plot available. He's angry, but it's not the kind of focused anger that you get a good book like Fahrenheit 451 from, rather it's just the spastic anger you'd get from an addlebrained 17 year old, or a middle-aged chick that just got dumped by her husband for a newer model. It lashes out at everything, even if it's potentially helpful. It's reflexive, pointless, depressing, and just tiring to be around, and remember, dear reader, that I'm a pretty angry guy myself most of the time, but even I was ultimately exhausted by it. Behind all this, there's an oddly provincial sort of English prudery that wouldn't have been out of place in Edwardian England, a kind of "Ugly Anglicanism," that goes abroad only to bitch and moan about how everything different is wrong. "Oh, they don't make the tea properly here, Oh, they've never even heard of scones, Oh, I don't like their kind of people." It's just sad.

Every author is entitled to a bad book every now and again, but this one is so very bad that it has forever tainted my admiration for him. I still like Baxter for his other books, but I'll never think of him quite the same again. Once he was an interesting, new voice with a lot of great ideas and some real science in his Science Fiction – always a plus in our Trek-saturated world - but now I'll always suspect he's something different: a sad, broken man lashing out in anger at a world forever beyond his control.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

No. Some of the Leftie-Bashing is kind of incoherent fun, but no, conservatives won't like this book. Lefties won't like this book. Nobody will like this book.

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