Titan, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1997, 676 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105713-4

In the first few chapters of Stephen Baxter’s 1997 novel Titan, space shuttle Columbia crashes upon re-entry and China sends its first astronaut into space. The timing is slightly off (both happen simultaneously in 2004, rather than over 2003 as it happened in our reality) but here’s hoping that Baxter’s extrapolative powers stop there, because the rest of the novel is of a bleakness quite unlike anything you’ve read outside of, well, other Stephen Baxter novels.

Once Columbia reduced to bits and pieces over the desert, America goes in a tailspin. NASA is told to mothball itself, an ultra-conservative president is elected to the White House (eek), tensions between China and the USA grow ever more dangerous and apathetic American teens seems content to wear tattoos while shaping their own feces in artistic shapes. All is lost? Not quite: Space convert Paula Benacerraf comes forth with a bold new plan to take over all that’s left of the American space program and send a Shuttle to Titan. It’s a desperate mission, maybe even a suicidal mission, but if it can show the way to bigger and better things…

Well, don’t bet on it. A decade-long Shuttle mission to Titan is insane in even the best of circumstances, and Baxter doesn’t miss a nasty trick as he whittles down his cast of characters. Titan is positively ghoulish in how it starts badly and keeps getting worse. And worse. And even worse. This novel rivals most horror films in how it keeps upping the body count through the stupidest and most gruesome ways possible. Baxter has often been a gloomy writer (see the Manifold series for more unremitting bleakness) but there’s a sadistic streak to Titan that makes it his most depressing book yet even as the ending is meant to be uplifting.

Heck, it’s depressing even it’s obvious that he’s unfairly stacking the deck against his characters, if not humanity itself: Professional astronauts get stuck in solar flares, biochemists poison themselves, humankind dooms itself to destruction and no-one says a peep as America takes itself apart. The Internet is shut down, ethnic viruses are planned by the US government (huh?) and everyone whistles as the extreme right-wing shuts down institutions of higher learning and humans are left to die in space. You would have thought, somehow, that there was more to space exploration than the USA, that the left-wing would have emigrated to Canada or that no one would be stupid enough to re-align an asteroid on Earth, even for some (hand-wave, here) obscure reason. Baxter may have forgotten to include a chapter in which all of humanity undergoes forced lobotomies. Titan often doesn’t make sense, and even acknowledges its silliness at times, such as one character wonders how they’ve been able to take control of everything in the American space inventory from Shuttles to Saturn-Vs. Character development? Don’t look for it here; they remain sketches even as their hardware is lavished with details. Social/political development doesn’t fare any better. Titan, in many ways, is a profoundly stupid book.

Plus there’s the length factor. Titan, as a proud hard-SF novel, is positively crammed with technical details. While it enhances the feel of the book as a credible piece of Science Fiction, it can quickly overloads the narrative with far too much detail. Exhibit number one: The first section, a snappy little action sequence that ends up splattered over not less than seventy pages. Yikes. It doesn’t really get any better. Exhibit number two: An entire X-15 subplot which has absolutely no impact on the rest of the book. Exhibit number three: The entire last section, which could have been cut with no detrimental effect on the novel’s impact.

So; Depressing, silly and overwritten. Is there anything left to save from Titan? Why yes. Even despite all of these flaws, it remains compulsively readable throughout. There’s a fascinating sense of inevitable doom floating over the whole story, as the window of survival shuts down over humanity. Part of it is shared sadistic delight at how bad things can become. Another is just, well, narrative inertia: We might as well see what will befall our characters next. Certainly, Titan is an unusual piece of hard-SF. A more conventional work would have used the Titan expedition as a rallying cry for the forces of light and rationalism. Here… well…

A word of caution, though: There are few words to describe the choking sense of dread that ends up contaminating the novel, and by extent the mind of anyone reading it. If you want a pleasant New Year’s Eve, for goodness’ sake don’t spend it reading Titan!

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