A Book Ian Likes: Titan by Stephen Baxter

Titan begins with the crash of a space shuttle on re-entry in 2003 and the realisation that people just aren’t that interested in going “out there” very much anymore. So Paula Benacerraf, grandmother, astronaut and nobody to trifle with, joins forces with a rogue scientist and a NASA administrator who knows that the agency’s number is almost up, to create a last memorable gesture of a mission to remind people that there is a grand universe out there…

Stephen Baxter is one of the major figures in British SF. He is probably most famous for his Xeelee sequence of novels and short stories, but in recent years he is also well-known for co-authoring the Long Earth series with the late Sir Terry Pratchett. He also very nearly qualified as an astronaut.

Titan is a novel that belongs in a series of parallel world novels that he wrote in the mid-90s through to the early 2000s. They ask some “what-if” questions about space programmes and the exploratory nature of humankind. In Titan Mr Baxter poses a thought experiment about sending a manned crew to the titular moon of Saturn and setting up a colony there.

This appears to be a fairly controversial book in Baxter’s catalogue: while reviews at the time of release praised the rigorous science and the solar-system wide canvas he paints upon, the near-future he paints polarised a lot of readers. I really can’t see why: I love the rigorous science he uses in planning the journey the astronauts have to take, the often prescient guesses he’s made about the near-future he’s putting his characters in – a future that really wasn’t that different from so many others in print at the time – and the characters themselves seem to have some pretty solid pieces of characterisation, despite being straight from central casting with a lot of their backstories and motivations.

For instance, he’s pretty good on the prevalence of the internet and the influence it would have on the world. In 1997 I’d become reasonably familiar with the internet courtesy of a couple of workplaces I had, but it was only just becoming the mainstream piece of technological furniture that it is now. Baxter’s guesses on how it might impact on then-future society seem quite quaint with the benefit of hindsight, but he really wasn’t terribly far off the mark. Likewise, his prediction of a right-wing president who gets elected on a platform supported by fundamentalist Christians who want to restrict the public’s access to accurate scientific information and whose first act is to build a 2, 000-mile-long wall between the USA and Mexico doesn’t seem too unrealistic, either (aside from the fact that he gets it built…).

He’s also pretty good on the decline of interest in looking outward for exploration and the rise of intellectual navel-gazing and the obsession with personal identity that you could argue has become the norm in modern thinking. It’s not perfect and there are some gaps in what he envisions and what happened, but he’s an SF writer, not a prophet. However, I found his future – our alternate present – to be exotically familiar, if a little off in the finer details.

What he also delivers is a story that is gripping and interesting with enough excitement, peril and moral dilemmas to satisfy anyone’s urges in a good story. There’s an amazing epilogue to it as well which seems strange and almost superfluous, but it sets off the rest of the novel perfectly in a manner that feels epic and elegiac in its scope about how we may finally make it to the stars. It’s worth ploughing through a story that may astound, inspire, fill you with despair and annoy you just to get to that one brilliant, aeon-spanning conclusion. 

You can find out more about Stephen Baxter at http://www.stephen-baxter.com/

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