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Technically excellent, but overwhelmed by back story
on July 21, 2004
Stephen Baxter's VOYAGE takes place in an alternate past: What if John F. Kennedy had survived assassination and lobbied for NASA to send astronauts to Mars in the 1980s, instead of building the space shuttle? It's a fascinating premise and certainly one worthy of a unique Mars novel.
Baxter himself holds a doctorate in engineering, so it's no surprise that he really knows his way around the technical stuff of spaceflight. He's quite knowledgeable in space history, as well. He presents an impressive amount of authentic detail, far more than I've seen in any other novel of its kind. Perhaps too much, in fact, because many spaceflight scenes repeat events and dialogue from real-life missions almost verbatim. On the whole, VOYAGE feels quite faithful to the era described, even if it's somewhat too faithful. It's also interesting to catch him using a few historic dates in spaceflight -- July 1976, April 1981, January 1986 -- so we can contemplate the differences in his alternate past.
Geologist Natalie York is VOYAGE's most reliable protagonist; she comes across as determined but not easy to root for. Baxter makes a few generalizations based on astronaut mythology, and he rarely hides his disdain for NASA's old "pilot vs. scientist" culture. One veteran astronaut is so surly that in the real space program he would have been permanently shelved from flight status (a la Wally Schirra). Nonetheless, Baxter avoids many of the stilted stereotypes of Ben Bova's Mars novels, so at least these characters are more subtle and level-headed. For the most part, he steers clear of the soap-opera style plotting that cripples most Mars books, and that alone is commendable.
VOYAGE's "major malfunction" is that Baxter spends far too much time laying the groundwork for going to Mars, and it dominates the pace of the novel. Almost nine tenths of this book is back story. The launch of the Mars flight opens the book, but by page 200 we're only up to Day 3 and we've barely left the earth behind us. At page 466, we've reached Day 171 of the flight, yet we've only arrived at the swingby of Venus, and we're still almost seven months away from the red planet!
While the author deserves praise for presenting a credible rationale for going to Mars, you can only go so far with a book about a Mars flight without actually describing the flight. I kept pleading for Baxter to get away from the project's early days and get to the damn point, but it practically never happens. Once I figured out how diminished the Mars flight was, it took me ages to finish reading. Because it is so dominated by background, this 772-page story unfolds in almost geologic time.
Even with my complaints, VOYAGE is easily the most technically accomplished and reasonable Mars novel I've ever read, and I've read a great many of them. It is frequently interesting and packed with details, but I just wish Baxter had spent more effort flying the mission instead of building his case. It is a solid four-star novel if not for the heavy reliance on background.