Voyage, Stephen Baxter

Harper Collins, 1996, 772 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105708-8

It’s nearly impossible nowadays to have more than a passing interest in space without feeling betrayed by politics. It’s a sobering thought to realize that no one has left Earth’s orbit in more a quarter of a century, or, personally, in my lifetime. The glorious results of Apollo have not been, to speak like managers, “leveraged” to better and bolder things. No Moonbase. No exploitation of lunar resources. No expeditions to Mars. After a few spectacular missions, the United States just… stopped. Politicians cut NASA’s budget, essentially stopping space exploration in favour of some ill-defined social programs that, frankly, don’t seem to work very well.

This theme of betrayal runs deep in Stephen Baxter’s fiction. In Traces, Baxter collected several short stories about alternate space programs. In Titan, astronauts steal a shuttle to go to Jupiter. In Moonseed, Baxter rails on for a while on NASA’s shortcomings. And now, in Voyage, Baxter really lets himself go and describes an alternate space program in which Americans land on Mars… in 1986.

The point of divergence between our universe and theirs, surprisingly enough, turns to be the oldest of those “what if” scenarios, which is to say a different fate for John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. JFK lives to be an indefatigable booster for the space program, which realigns its priorities after the first moon landing to develop a one-shot Mars mission for 1986. Various difficulties intervene, stuff and marriages blow up, people are selected to go to Mars and, as you might guess, the novel ends on Mangala Valles itself.

As suggested by the introduction to this review, Voyage is less of a story and much more of a book-length treatise and analysis of the impact of politics on the space program since the sixties. As such, don’t expect compelling drama, heart-stopping suspense or heavy theatrics. In his quest for verisimilitude, Baxter concentrates on how it might have really happened rather than on constant jolts of action. (There is one good jolt midway through, and it has more impact due to the lack of action preceding it.) Even the structure of the novel -told in flashbacks between liftoff and Mars landing- seems to conspire against heightened tension. There isn’t really any suspense in knowing if the mission will make it to Mars. Indeed, the novel ends on a note that seems to suggest that the return from Mars itself is unimportant.

But, ah-ha, the “getting there” aspect is very well-done. The amount of detail that Baxter packs in Voyage are nothing short of awe-inspiring. In his mind, he’s obviously setting out to re-create a complete space program, and he achieves it successfully. All levels of the space program are covered, from the astronauts to the NASA administrators to the humble contractors doing more than “just their job” in order to put Americans on Mars. Authentic documents are reproduced, and seemingly-authentic ones are written.

One small nit I had was the lack of other changes in this alternate history. The presidents remain the same. Moon landing date and Apollo 13 are unaffected. Historical events don’t seem to be disturbed by JFK’s survival. Sure, it focuses the interest on the Mars mission, but still…

A more serious issue (which is not necessarily a complaint) is that for all its intricate detail and constant proselytism, Voyage fails to convince that this alternate history is somehow better than ours. It makes a powerful argument that we should go to Mars, but the post-Voyage space program seems poised to stop like ours did, except without any Shuttles or Voyagers in service. Voyage literally ends once someone steps on Mars. Maybe Baxter wants to give us an idea of the required trade-offs?

But if your kicks tend to be space-related, and/or if you have a fondness for Hard SF and historical novels, give Voyage a try. It’s an ambitious work that highlights new possibilities for the genre, and represents an impressive intellectual achievement in its own right.

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