Titan (Stephen Baxter novel)
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publication date||18 July 1997|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||581 pp (HB)|
Titan is a 1997 science fiction novel by Stephen Baxter. The book depicts a manned mission to Titan — the enigmatic moon of Saturn — which has a thick atmosphere and a chemical makeup that some think may contain the building blocks of life. Titan was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1998.
Baxter's novel explores a range of possible attitudes toward space exploration and science in the early twenty-first century in which he lays down his concerns about anti-intellectualism and the loss of the pioneering spirit in modern American politics and culture. In Baxter's novel, America is ruled by a fundamentalist Christian president named Xavier Maclachlan who, believing Earth is the centre of the universe, orders the equal treatment of the Ptolemaic model of the solar system in high school curricula, all the while youth culture goes into a rebellious downward spiral with the widespread adoption of digital entertainment technology. With the far-right isolationist policies America now embraces, it has severed its ties with the rest of the world (including within itself with seceding nation-states), especially while tensions grow with the emerging power of China, which is engaged in a determined bid to gain control of space after the American Shuttle program comes crashing down with the loss of Columbia (but not in the same way as actual events. In this timeline, instead of disintegrating on re-entry the shuttle makes an irreparable crash landing with the loss of two of the crew), and NASA has no public or political support to help recover from the accident. Consequently, under Maclachlan's executive plans, the US military merges with the space agency for its resources to be diverted into defence spending, including using its space-faring vehicles as weapons platforms and forcing NASA to develop ethnically-targeted biological weapons tailored to attack Han Chinese.
Amid this negative climate and seeing no future for themselves after the permanent shutdown of the space program or for the decadent future of humanity, a small team of scientists and astronauts must persuade NASA to fund a manned mission to Titan to confirm findings of life from the Cassini and to rejuvenate interest in space exploration to the world. They do so by recycling older spacecraft for several purposes: space shuttle Atlantis is refitted to carry cargo into orbit as well as a restored Saturn V for construction of the main ship (a heavily modified version of Discovery using ion drive propulsion), using habitat modules from the mothballed International Space Station, and Apollo re-entry capsules are adapted to become Titan landers. On the day of the last launch to begin the mission, with the shuttle Endeavour ready to carry the crew to space, an insane USAF general driven by shallow militarism and hatred for space exploration tries to shoot down the shuttle during lift off. Despite damage sustained from an anti-satellite missile fired from a restored X-15, Endeavour successfully makes it into orbit, and the five crew members begin their six-year journey to Saturn by following the gravity-assisted Interplanetary Transport Network.
En route, one crew member dies after a solar storm. The use of a CELSS greenhouse for life support provides a continuous food supply, and the astronauts rely on vegetables, grain and fruit from the greenhouse as they travel on. But things take a dark turn as funding and support for resupply and Earth-return retrieval are cut by Maclachlan's administration (proposed and carried out by the very same men that tried to shoot the shuttle down), leaving the team with no hope for survival beyond what they may find on Titan. Once they reach Saturn and prepare to land on Titan's surface, another crew member is lost during the landing procedure with another effectively crippled. Titan is discovered to be a bleak, freezing dwarf-planet containing liquid ethane oceans, a sticky mud surface, and a climate which includes a thick atmosphere of purple organic compounds falling like snow from the clouds; and the only traces of life they find are fossilised remains of microbic bacteria similar to those recovered from Martian meteorites. The remaining astronauts relay their findings back to a largely uninterested Earth.
Meanwhile, the Chinese, to retaliate for biological attacks by the US, cause a huge explosion next to an asteroid (2002OA), with the aim of deflecting it into Earth orbit and threatening the world with targeted precision strikes in the future. Unfortunately, their calculations are wrong as they didn't take into account the size of the asteroid which could cause a Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The asteroid strikes Earth, critically damaging the planetary ecosystem. The Titan team members are presumably the last humans left alive.
As the surviving astronauts slowly die of disease and in-fighting, they decide to try to ensure life will continue to survive: they take a flask of bacteria and drop it into a crater filled with liquid water, in the hope that some form of life will develop.
The novel's final sequence depicts the final two crew members reincarnated on Titan several billion years in the future. The sun has entered its red giant phase, warming the Saturnian system and aiding the evolution of life, in the form of strange, intelligent beetle-like creatures, on Titan. The astronauts watch as the creatures build a fleet of starships to seed and colonise new solar systems before the expanding sun boils off the surface of the moon.
Literary significance & criticism
The novel's final chapter has been heavily criticised for excessive implausibility, but it can be read as deliberate wishful thinking: it epitomises Baxter's moral that if the human race is to survive indefinitely, it must become more proactive in its approach to space travel, and not resort to shallow militarism or nationalist isolationism. The Titanian beetles represent Baxter's dream of what the human race should be. Conceivably, the final chapter can be read as the dying dream of the astronauts, rather than a realistic evocation of Titan's future.
Baxter wrote a short story, "Sun God", that features the final sequence of Titan from the point of view of the Titanian beetles. The story was included in the collection Phase Space.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
The depiction of Titan's surface is speculation based on respectable scientific data that was available in 1997 – in fact the book "Lifting Titan's Veil" notes that Baxter's story paraphrases closely sections of papers by Lorenz on raindrops on Titan and the geomorphology of crater lakes. The Cassini probe's study of Titan, which began in 2005, has recently borne out that there do appear to be liquid lakes on the moon.
- "1998 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 3 August 2009.
- R. D. Lorenz and J. M. Mitton, Lifting Titan's Veil, Cambridge University Press, 2002
- "'Great lakes' seen on Titan moon". BBC News. 25 July 2006. Retrieved 30 January 2011.
- Jonathan Amos (19 December 2009). "'Boat' could explore Saturn moon". BBC News. Retrieved 30 January 2011.
- Titan at Worlds Without End