I began reading Titan by Stephen Baxter not just as a science fiction fan, but also as an astronomer with a long held fascination for the world in which this story was to be set. Saturn is a magical planet in its own right, but what amazed scientists and astronomers when we got our first close up images of it and its large family of satellites was the data coming back from its largest moon Titan. Titan itself is a large world as moons go, even bigger than two of the planets in our solar system. When NASA's voyager spacecraft flew past Saturn they imaged Titan, but frustratingly only revealed a strange orange cloud covered world, leaving us with more questions than answers.
This is where Stephen Baxter begins his tale. The book opens with the follow up mission to Saturn, the unmanned probe "Cassini", (which is in reality on course for Saturn as you read this review) it carries with it the "Huygens" Titan landing vehicle. And is due to arrive at the ringed planet in 2004. In the opening chapter Huygens arrival at Titan reveals that something amazing may be present on this harsh cold world a billion miles from the sun. Huygens may well have detected signs of life.
When the story switches back to Earth we find that the space agency, which sent Cassini to Saturn, is in turmoil. They have the possibility of solving a question they have been attempting to answer for decades. But the likely incoming president is not a man who regards science as a high priority. The United States is about to elect a man who can only be described as a religious fundementalist. A man not too keen on aiding a space agency, which in his eyes, wants to show the world that most of the bible, is wrong - that there could be life on other worlds. NASA prepares itself for the inevitable, loss of budget and huge cut backs, the dream of following up on a monumental breakthrough in the outer solar system is slipping away.
It is at this point that our two central characters meet. Paula Banacerraf, a shuttle astronaut and Isaac Rosenberg the JPL scientist who interpreted the Titan life form data. Rosenberg is a man obsessed with his find, and soon convinces Banacerraf that if NASA is to only have one last shot at something big before the new president takes office, it should be a mission to Titan. The plan they and their team come up with is an incredible one, and will require all of NASA's remaining budget and resources. The plan calls not for a simple robot, but a team of humans to be sent to the distant reaches of the solar system, and to descend beneath the clouds to the surface of an alien moon, a manned mission to Titan.
NASA, it seems, agrees that a last grand mission is the obvious course to take. With its future looking uncertain, it has no use for it's remaining funds and stock pile of space station hardware. It's shuttles and other launch vehicles have been paid for. So much of the framework for a big mission is in place. But Bancerraf's team are not the only ones plotting, and they face competition from others in the space agency. Other groups within NASA argue for a return to the Moon, or a long awaited Manned mission to Mars.
Of course, the Moon is a dead world and Mars, although showing promising indications for harbouring life, still has not given up its secrets during many decades of unmanned exploration. With Titan being the only world in our solar system to show positive proof of life, NASA makes the discision to send Banaceraf and her team on the long voyage to the outer solar system. What follows is a fantastic voyage of discovery and adventure. Humans for the first time leave the Earth/Moon system.
Unlike mankinds previous journeys to the moon, our Titan explorers leave with no plans in place to return them home. Only the hope that the development of NASA's new spacecraft continues and will one day arrive at Saturn to bring them back to the distant Earth. Even communications with Earth are not certain; Messages sent to and from home depend on the fragile and ageing Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn. So it is with a great deal of danger and an air of uncertainty that our team embark on this extremely risky venture. The events and situations that unfold on Earth during the journey to and landing on Titan by our team, ensure the sub plots of this novel are far from dull. World leaders react badly to the policies of the new U.S. administration. And their new foreign policy and isolationist stance opens up issues with some old adversaries, with some dire results.
As for what awaits our explorers on Titan, I am, of course not going to tell you! I would like you to read this book with the same sense of mystery that I enjoyed. I will tell you that as somebody with a passion for astronomy and more than a passing interest in latter day and present unmanned and manned spaceflight, Stephen Baxter has done a superb job of keeping Titan very much in the realms of reality, in terms of his descriptions of the world in which the story is set, and the methods and spacecraft used to explore the distant reaches of our solar system. I found Titan a fantastic read, and a welcome change from the many titles in this genre set on now more familiar worlds such as Mars. If you have a collection of solar system exploration Sci Fi, or you have maybe read the many Ben Bova novels dealing with mankinds exploration of our neighbouring worlds, you will certainly enjoy this one.
Stephen Baxter has exploited the mystery and uncertainty that surrounds this intrigueing moon of Saturn, and used it to great effect in this tale. I will be picking up this novel again in 2004 when the Cassini/Huygens spacecraft reaches Saturn for real, just to see if Mr. Baxter got it right...and I truly hope he has.