Stephen Baxter’s Titan: Twenty Years Later
It is almost two decades since Stephen Baxter’s Clarke Award nominated novel Titan (1997) first appeared. I have been reading it over the past week and despite its transformation into “a period-piece, a description of a lost alternate world,” it is impossible not to be struck by the prescience of a novel in which Baxter correctly predicts things like the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a widespread American rejection of science, and – in all but name – the rise of Donald Trump.
Set between the early-2000s and the present day, the novel follows an outlandish, years-long crewed mission to confirm signs of life on the titular Saturnian satellite. It is a sprawling, multi-faceted work told from the perspective of nearly a dozen characters including American and Chinese astronauts, beleaguered NASA administrators, Moon-landing veterans, rogue US Air Force officers, scientists, and journalists. Its near six hundred pages are rigorously researched (occasionally to Titan’s detriment) and it displays a strong thematic link to both Baxter’s other NASA novels (Voyage, 1996, and Moonseed, 1998) as well as to later work like 2009’s Ark. Indeed, the unrelenting “squalor and crap of [the characters’] lives aboard the spacecraft” (recounted over long stretches of Titan and Ark) is almost enough to make a person think twice about deep space travel.
Just as uncomfortable is the accuracy by which Baxter predicts contemporary life on Earth from his mid-1990s vantage. “It seemed America was likely to lapse into fundamentalism, and isolationism, and a kind of high-tech Middle Ages,” we are told as the novel charts the rise of a regressive energy which recasts science as a “spiritual dislocation” and sees creationism and Aristotelian physics made cornerstones of school curricula. Yet the eeriest aspect of Baxter’s almost precognitive world-building in Titan is the character of Xavier Maclachlan, an ambitious, rabble-rousing Republican who harnesses popular discontent into a presidential run. Maclachlan is, in essence, Donald Trump: A “nationalist-populist” who promises to “build walls around the nation” both metaphorically and physically.
One cannot help but think of Trump supporters being told to bring their firearms to polling places when reading about “armed militia bands” converging on Washington to support Maclachlan. Like Trump too, Maclachlan’s followers include members of the Ku Klux Klan and there is a rumour that “a former Klan leader was being made ready to become a future White House chief of staff”. Though of course the real clincher is how Maclachlan pushes for “a wall, two thousand miles of it, along the Mexican border, to exclude illegal immigrants”. All of this grants Titan a contemporary feel further bolstered by the fact that much of the book takes place during 2016.
An extended thought experiment as much as a science fiction story – something especially true of the final section – Titan is not a perfect novel (the writing isn’t necessarily Baxter’s strongest) but it is one which wonderfully captures the sense of wonder at exploration and the possibilities of the space programme. Nods to Clarke (a significant influence here) and Bradbury jostle for space alongside references to Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, various incarnations of Star Trek, and other science fiction staples. This is a novel where the characters are in love with the idea of space travel and, in particular, with the heroism of the Apollo era. Still, for all of that, the reality of their experiences is surprisingly downbeat. The back half of the book is relentlessly grim as Baxter’s astronauts struggle to survive first the journey to Saturn and then the sucking methane slush of their new home all while their old one collapses under Maclachlan’s malign influence.
In an afterword from the year of publication, Baxter muses on how the then recent loss of Carl Sagan (who plays a small role in the novel) immediately rendered Titan “an alternate history”. Nonetheless it is the potential future history of the novel’s final fifty pages which seems to have consistently been Titan‘s most divisive element. Depending on your perspective, the book’s conclusion is either a whiplash inducing tonal three-sixty or a textbook example of what The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction memorably called Baxter’s “sweet-tooth for the eschatological climax”. Personally I would place it somewhere in the middle: an ambitious, left-field dénouement which cuts the novel’s hard science with something much closer to the fantastic. It is obviously fuelled by the author’s longstanding interest in evolutionary science (seen again in the stories of, as you might imagine, 2002’s Evolution) and it provides perhaps the happiest ending possible given everything that has come before. Is it a perfect landing? No, but in its messiness and aspiration it is as true to life as anything which Baxter’s astronauts encounter on faraway Titan.
Other posts you may find of interest:
- Tolkien on Titan: Fantasy Fiction and Solar System Nomenclature
- ‘A Tomb for the Celtic Tiger: The Achill Circle.