Reading this novel, thirteen years after it was written and about halfway into the period in which it is set, Baxter's jaundiced view of the immediate future of manned space flight is an absorbing read.
The book combines Baxter's strengths. His clear and engaging prose is deployed to demonstrate his ubergeek knowledge of US space hardware, his fascination with the bureaucracy of NASA and his pessimism at the direction of global geopolitics. The result is an enthralling and unnerving story.
The concept of the novel is that, faced with the shutdown of the manned spaceflight programme (and much else) and increasing popular disinterest in science, a group of NASA scientists put together a manned spaceflight to Titan using a Shuttle Orbiter, various Apollo leftovers and a couple of Russian nuclear reactors (no sign of Chekhov, though)as an alternative to simplyly scrapping them. The five astronauts set off on their six-year one-way mission, just ahead of being cancelled, but rapidly find themselves abandoned as the United States turns isolationist and rejects science.
There are some excellent set pieces, and Baxter manages his usual trick of explaining hard science concepts concisely and clearly. As ever, there are some nice touches - the expedition's leader finds herself en route to a place that her grandchildren are now taught does not exist; one of the astronauts is British-born, a possibility in 1997 but now, of course, a reality three times over.
The parallels with Arthur C Clarke are obvious, acknowleded and deliberate (In "2001", Discovery's original destination was Saturn, but was changed for the film).
As with any near future speculation, criticisms can be made, but none of consequence. Personally, I would have liked the characters of Siobhan and Niki, two of the crew, to have been more fully drawn. And it is not clear what purpose the fifth crew member really served, except for a dramatic but unecessary scene on Titan. These are quibbles.
Obama's recent real-life revision of the space programme, incidentally, is neutral in terms of how the book's events unfold. One thing that is different is Obama's election itself in 2008, rather than the Christian-fundamentalist backwoods conservative of the novel. So at least we have avoided that fate - or is it just postponed?
Baxter followers will need no encouragement. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in current spaceflight, near future speculation or just a damn good SF adventure.