2003 / march / 09

Review: Titan - Stephen Baxter

Wow. It has been a while since I was so enthralled by a book.
When visiting the library, to avoid only reading titles I've heard about in some way, I like to grab a random book off the shelf. That's the way I took Stephen Baxter's Titan home. Never heard of the book, or even its author. Serendipity at work.
This book can be categorized as hard, near-future science fiction, and all the reviews I've found treat it as such. And they're all missing the point, I think. It touched me in a deep way, as few SF does.
Eerily enough, the book starts with the shuttle Columbia crashing, during landing, in 2003 (the book came out in 1997), spelling the end of most of the NASA space program. To combat this, a small group puts together a maverick, one-way mission to Titan, using the remaining shuttles and various bits and bobs from NASA's inventory.

After the launch, the book alternates between the story of this mission on the six years journey to Saturn, and the story of earth during that time. Both are depressing. The crew sets out, hoping that their mission will inspire a new space program to eventually follow them, but as earth becomes more and more plagued by xenophobic politics and a cold war between the US and China, which eventually turns hot, interest for the mission dwindles. In space, the crew members die one by one, some in space, some on the surface of Titan. And on earth, warfare sets mankind back to the stone age.

Baxter is a good writer, knows his physics and the workings of NASA and uses them to good effect. But there is more to this book. In the SF genre, especially in the "hard" variety, the main characters tend to be the ideas, not the people. Characterisation is often weak.
Now, in this novel, none of the main characters are really likeable. During the long, long flight the crew members cut off communication as their means of social survival in their tiny living quarters. They basically bicker a lot, resent eachother, and retreat in their own routine as much as possible. It is a way of not going crazy, with a varying success rate, and at a huge cost. There are rare moments of insight, but mostly it is very dire. Not a pretty picture of humanity, and the characters on earth don't do much better. They are less locked up in their own life, but instead society gets them in the end, with an utter lack of compassion.

This book really touched me - once it got me hooked, it robbed me of a lot of sleep, as I had to go on. On the one hand, here is a possible future for humanity that is bleak, grim, and awkwardly realistic. It could very well happen: the industrial-military complex is bigger than ever, and populist politics abound.
But on the smaller scale it goes further: here we see the total breakdown of human communication, which lies at the root of our problems. In the end, we are alone, on a Titan colony or in a gated community in Seattle. And by not communicating to eachother, retreating in our own shell, for comfort - though we might mislabel comfort as survival - we create our own destruction. The complacency that the author rallies against is deep-rooted in all of us, and if we're going to make it depends on our growing awareness.
I've wondered whether Baxter put the human communication breakdown in on purpose - after all, I've read a lot of SF where the characters never become more than storytelling props. It could be just a side-effect of this writing style. But to me, it was what did it in the end. In this novel it works, and it works very well.

Oh, I haven't mentioned the ending. I'm not going to spoil it, but suffice to say that the last thirty pages are very different, even hopeful. If not for humanity, at least for life in general. It works for me.

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