Review: “Voyage” or “Apollo goes to Mars”

Alternate history novels commonly deal with big wars, global disasters and similar high-impact events. Stephen Baxter‘s Voyage from 1996 instead uses this literary tool to tell the story of an alternate space program.

The novel’s turning point: in 1963 John F Kennedy survives the Dallas fusillade with serious injuries whereas Jacqueline Kennedy succumbs to the assassin’s bullets. The president must retire for health reasons, but nevertheless continues for another decade or two to influence the US space program in a more ambitious direction. So when the US Congress ends the Apollo lunar project prematurely in the early 1970s, NASA’s next priority goal becomes a nuclear-powered manned mission to Mars.

Voyage follows this endeavor from inception in the 1960s to conclusion in the 1980s, and delivers a detailed study of alternate-history engineering with multiple protagonists as viewpoints. This is a piece of hard science fiction with ideas and gadgets based on what technology was available in those decades; not everything was constructed in our timeline, but everything could probably have been if the will and the money had been there. Real-world engineers and astronauts make cameo appearances, like Pete Conrad and Wernher von Braun, but all major protagonists are fictitious.

The story takes a close look at the human aspects of space exploration: the dirty disputes between proponents of different engineering solutions, the injuries and deaths caused by hardware malfunctions, the political game behind government financing, the competition between astronauts for the three seats on the Mars mission, the marriages broken by career demands, the overworked minds that crack, spectres from Germany’s dark past haunting NASA, and so on.

Baxter also creates a plausible scenario in which NASA’s Mars crew contains one woman and one African-American, and describes the particular challenges these two encounter. In order to succeed they have to outsmart a system that consistently favors white males. (A non-issue today, perhaps, but not so when Baxter wrote the story twenty years ago about events taking place yet another fifteen-twenty years earlier.)

NASA uses upgraded Apollo and Skylab equipment for its extremely costly one-shot mission to the Red Planet. Therefore the Space Shuttle and the many unmanned interplanetary probes never materialize because different funding priorities: no Vikings landing on Mars, no Pioneers and Voyagers investigating the gas giants, no Mariner 10 photographing Mercury, etc. Baxter lets the reader decide which strategy carries the better long-term benefits.*

Baxter also delivers a heart-rending equivalent to Challenger disaster: NASA’s quality assurance protocols are as flawed in this timeline as in ours. “No, we didn’t check that particular issue because it seemed unimportant.”

No, this is not a feel-good story, but rather a feel-true one. The author’s meticulous research is ever-present in this page-turner and I wish I could write like this. I give Voyage 5 red planets out of 5.

*Hindsight is of course always 20-20: I think that the unmanned strategy has paid off well. A one-shot Apollo-style mission to Mars would hardly have been as beneficial to our steadily increasing knowledge of the solar system as the dozens of much cheaper probes that have visited our planetary neighbors since the 1970s.

Methane on Mars

Abruptly switching from last post’s Lost Mars to real Mars: NASA’s rover Curiosity has detected wildly fluctuating levels of methane in the Red Planet’s atmosphere.

The scientists responsible for this research speak of miniscule amounts, but they conclude: “observed elevated levels of methane of 7.2 ± 2.1 (95% CI) ppbv impl[y] that Mars is episodically producing methane from an additional unknown source.” That gas is not chemically stable on Mars because the sun’s UV radiation breaks apart its molecules. So there must be an underlying continuous process at work. On Earth methane is produced by volcanism and by life — there are no active volcanoes on Mars so this phenomenon definitely warrants serious investigation.

Link 1 for more facts about the discovery >>>

Link 2 for more facts about the discovery >>>

The Music of Lost Mars?

When I strive to envision the lost fantastic Mars, I want more than red deserts, languid canals and decaying terracotta cities. I want sounds, smells, and tastes that transport my mind to that Red Planet. It is not so easy, unfortunately, because even though being a prolific wordsmith, I have little talent for drawing, music and cooking. However, once in a while serendipity comes my way.

Musicologist Stef Connor, instrument maker Andy Lowing and sound technician Mark Harmer have recreated the music and instruments of the Akkadian, Hurrite and Sumerian cities in Mesopotamia more than four millennia ago. Their sources are clay tablets, with cuneiform song texts and musical notations, and instruments unearthed by archaeologists.

I have no idea how accurate their recreations are — that is a matter for scholars to debate — but I found the music unexpectedly haunting. Yes, this is something I think Leigh Brackett‘s fictional archaeologist Matt Carse heard in the torchlit nights in the ancient city of Jekkara by the Low Canals.

Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

The Flood, a song by the trio, located on Soundcloud — link >>>

The trio presents their work on a Vimeo video — link >>>

An article about the trio’s work — link >>>

Stef Conner’s web site — link >>>

Andy Lowing’s project to reconstruct an Akkadian lyre — link >>>

Mars’s Pleasant Past

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity keeps on making interesting discoveries during its slow journey across the desert landscape. Now it has investigated layers of sedimentary rocks in what was a lake a few billions years ago. That is also a clear indication that the Red Planet also had an ocean in that distant era. It must thus have been a warmer and wetter time than what astronomers previously thought. Read more here — link >>>

Layers of sedimentary rock that form a part of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.

The start of “The Ice War”

As a teaser for the planned 2015 publication of my dieselpunk espionage adventure The Ice War, I present the first paragraphs of chapter 1.

The Cassiopeia’s cargo ramp touched the ground with a clonk. I crossed it and stepped down on the cracked concrete of the landing pad. The cold wind smelled of burning coal and dusty roads. The sun stood halfway into the sky to the north-northwest: early afternoon local time. Carrion birds squabbled around a carcass at the nearest warehouse. Denmark’s red and white flag fluttered over the cloudport’s gate and beyond it I glimpsed Fredriksborg’s cluster of dark buildings.

My destination was at the desk for arriving cloudships in the customs office. The officer on duty spoke German with a thick Danish accent: “So you’re coming from Magalhana? We haven’t seen ships from there for a while. Why are you here, garçon?”

His slur did not surprise me and I responded with a well-rehearsed smile. “My name is Johnny Bornewald, Herr Zollwachtmeister” I said in cultured German. “We carry spare parts for the governor’s office.”

His eyes dodged my gaze. “The cargo manifest, garçon.”

I handed over a file with the ship’s documents that the law required for arrivals at foreign cloudports. “At the bottom of that bundle, Herr Zollwachtmeister.” Some of those sheets were forgeries by our allies in the Dutch intelligence service, but I did not worry about that. Before leaving the Cassiopeia, I had double-checked everything and found no flaws.

While the officer inspected the documents, I took a look at the surrounding office rooms and storage areas. They were mostly empty and unkempt with a few dirty machines that had not been used for a long time. Whatever cloudships arrived here must make do with their equipment. The cloudport had been built to handle ten or fifteen vessels at the same time, that was obvious, but after the outbreak of war in the northern hemisphere, incoming traffic must have fallen to next to nothing.

The document bundle hit the desk with a thud. I glimpsed a fresh indigo stamp at the top of the first page: FREDRIKSBORGS TOLDKONTOR, GODKENDT, 24 XI 1940.

“Tell your captain that everything is in proper order, garçon,” said the customs officer.

I looked straight into his face when I picked up the papers. He turned away from me without the salute prescribed by his service regulations. I left the building without a “thank you” and took a few breaths of fresh air to rinse the bitter feelings out of my mind. In my current position I simply had to endure such treatment.

Recension: Carl Hamilton möter Dana Scully

Thrillern 5-Bussen av Staffan Rodebrand är en udda pterodactyl på den svenska bokhimlen. Ja, jag blandar metaforerna med avsikt ty denna bok mixtrar lika vilt med sina genrer: på en och samma gång en svensk snutroman, en Guillousk action-smocka och ett X-files-manus.

Fokus ligger på Öland, ett landskap som författaren känner utan och innan. (Han verkar också vara ordentligt invigd i det lokala fågelskådandets hemligheter.) Någonstans på Alvaret ligger en plats där folk finner nästintill övernaturliga ting i marken. En del skattletare dör plågsamt eller försvinner spårlöst. Men det gåtfulla fynden kan säljas diskret för stora belopp till samlare världen över. Detta drar till sig MC-gäng, ryska gangsters och CIA-agenter. Raskt blir Kalmar-polisen och SÄPO inblandade. Och sedan höjs insatserna bit för bit tills det handlar om rikets säkerhet och kustjägarna gör en insats med knattrande automatvapnen och stora explosioner som följd.

Jag lämnar inga spoilers här, men det är X-files i Sverige, inte tal om annat. Intrigen är habil och jag ger pluspoäng för slutet, där författaren överraskade mig två gånger (en liten, en stor) — sådant händer inte ofta nuförtiden eftersom jag har läst så många thrillers att jag känner igen de flesta grepp.

Boken har tyvärr två brister: en påfrestande pratig prosa med alltför mycket detaljer och alltför många adverb, samt en stor skock huvudpersoner som alla talar på ungefär samma sätt och som saknar klara särskiljande drag; det blir alltså svårt för läsaren att hålla isär dem.

Det här hade kunnat bli en riktigt bra thriller om Staffan Rodebrand hade låtit en professionell redaktör hyvla bort språkliga överflödigheter och tydliggöra huvudpersonerna. Boken publicerades helt enkelt för tidigt i utvecklingsprocessen: två redigeringsrundor till hade förmodligen gjort texten 20% kortare och 50% bättre.

Jag ger boken tre X av fem möjliga, mest för dess delvis oväntade upplösning. Om prosan hade varit bättre, hade jag höjt betyget ett snäpp.