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Voyage by Stephen Baxter (1996)

Voyage by Stephen Baxter.

Alternative worlds are a staple of science fiction, but this is a particularly detailed and richly observed example of the genre. Essentially it asks, what if the Apollo moon flights had not been the swansong of American deep space manned space program, what indeed if NASA had been set a new goal after the triumph of the moonwalks, to send men to Mars? The catalyst for this extraordinary voyage is a pivotal change in history. Kennedy survives the attack at Daly Plaza. Crippled and confined to a wheelchair he is succeeded by Johnson and then Nixon, yet continues to exert his influence on the space program. But the road to Mars is anything but smooth and the battle to start the voyage, let alone complete it, is one that will span decades, make careers and ruin lives.

It seems telling that Baxter applied to be a cosmonaut on the mission that eventually rocketed Helen Sharman (Britain's first person in space) to the Mir Space Station in May 1991. History obviously records that he didn't make it, but this book could be read as the salve to that wound. Baxter clearly has an extraordinary passion for astronautics, painting a detailed picture of the engineering challenges faced. This really reads like a blueprint on how to get to Mars and way in which he alters history just enough to push the project forward betrays a detailed knowledge of the real history of the American space program. It also shows just what an opportunity we really lost to put people on Mars in the 1980's. Gone in Baxter's world is the folly of the Space Shuttle, replaced by enhanced but tried and trusted Apollo technology. Along the way however are a few disasters, including the ill judged folly of orbiting an experimental nuclear powered spacecraft. Again, real history is skilfully woven into the fabric of the story. There really was a nuclear rocket program called NERVA and it was tested at the very place, Jackass Flats, that features in the book, though it never flew.

Also nicely realized are the politics that have always hindered NASA. On top of that, budget cuts, waning public enthusiasm and wars all play their part, but Baxter does not forget the people in his story. At the heart of the tale are a group of fictional astronauts but a few familiar names hover on the periphery. Oddly, though Armstrong walks first on the moon in this book, he fades from view completely thereafter. And poor Buzz Aldrin loses his place in history completely; replaced by Joe Muldoon, a hard nosed and opinionated air force pilot who confounds his critics by rising to become the driving force behind the Mars project, though this curtails his own passionate need to fly in space again.

The narrative structure of this book is a little odd. Baxter has chosen to present his story in two distinct interwoven strands. The book begins with the launch of the Ares mission to Mars, flips back and forth between the voyage and the decades of struggle to get to that point, and ends with the landing. It doesn't always quite flow smoothly enough and you can argue it is a big mistake to give away the ending at the very beginning of the book, but it actually works because Baxter succeeds in engaging you in the struggle so much that you end up sharing the characters passion for the mission so much that you want to know just how they did it. The devil really is in the detail and Baxter does a great job in tempting you to keep turning the pages.

This is at heart a book about going to Mars, not being on Mars. If you want something like that, you really should read Kim Stanley Robinson, but if you want to immerse yourself in all the complexities of a space program from space toilets to rocket engines, then this is the book for you. Strongly recommended.


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See also


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Matian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. A bitter sweet history of Mars as seen and experienced by both Human and Martians.

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. A human raised by Martians returns to Earth.

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