Voyage, by Stephen Baxter

voyage-by-stephen-baxterGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1997
Reviewer Rating: fourstars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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Voyage is the story of a mission that never was. In this long and meticulously researched novel, Baxter speculates that if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas, he might have provided the political impetus to allow NASA to extend beyond the Moon-landings and initiate a manned mission to Mars.

Voyage is a very detailed, convincing portrayal of realistic characters with genuine human traits, striving towards a breathtaking technological and political goal. It’s written like ‘faction’ — a dramatic narrative of known facts — except, this is fiction.

Baxter himself applied to NASA to be an astronaut, went through various tests, and was eventually turned down. Writing this novel must have been the next best thing.

Just occasionally the style displays a clunkiness that’s possibly the result of hasty editing, but generally it’s a smooth and engrossing read, despite the abundance of hard SF detail.

The story of NASA’s manned trip to Mars is told in converging threads: the outward flight itself, and the lead-up to the launch. It’s cleverly done, so that although we know from the first few pages that Baxter’s protagonist — the American geologist Natalie York — is going to Mars, we don’t know exactly how. The narrative thread culminating in the launch gradually reveals her path into history.

Watching the first three episodes of Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon, I was struck by the number of events depicted in its presumably factual account of the Apollo program, that have almost exact parallels in Baxter’s fictional account of the Mars mission. Hanks’ TV series is partly based on Andrew Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon (Penguin 1995), which it seems likely Baxter has read, either incidentally or as specific research for Voyage. I haven’t read Chaikin’s book, nor do I know how much of it is in Hanks’ TV series, but several of the telling events and conversations — for example concerning the crew’s opinion of the spacecraft (“a lemon”), the meeting to announce the crew assignments (“the men who are going to Mars/the Moon are in this room, looking at me now”), or the enforced retirement of the head of the engineering company that made the spacecraft — all these appear in both Hanks’ story of Apollo and Baxter’s story of the Mars mission. Such parallels would be legitimate, it seems to me, if the Mars mission was an alternative to Apollo, but it is supposed to be subsequent to it, and so the parallels appear as a case of history repeating itself. I draw no conclusions from this, but it did make me wonder.

Voyage has recently been serialized on BBC Radio Four, in five half-hour episodes. For me, reading the book in parallel with the radio-drama enhanced both.

On the whole I was impressed by Voyage. It reads like the dramatization of real events, which means that as fiction it succeeds. One proviso, however: Stephen Baxter is British, and he has written an American book. As a British reader I found it totally convincing; an American might take a different view.

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