BOOK REVIEW: “Back to the Moon” by Travis S. Taylor and Less Johnson (2010)

Republibot 3.0
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I was in the mood for a potboiler the other day. Nothing fancy, mind you, nothing artsy or far-reaching, just a fun little read. The cover of this book fairly screamed out that it was exactly what I was looking for. Or so I thought, but I’ve been wrong before, and I’ll be wrong again…

This is one of those rare, forlorn books that are obsolete before they actually see print. In fact, I’m surprised it actually made it to press at all: The entire plot revolves around the Constellation program’s return to the moon in the not-too-distant future, say around ten years or so from now. Unfortunately, since President Obama unilaterally cancelled the program (Against the opposition of his own party!) Constellation is dead, and none of this stuff will ever fly. Heartbreaking. I feel bad for the authors, who doubtless spent years working on this thing, only to have the future it took place in yanked out from under their feet. How can you see something like that happen, and not want to like the book? I wanted to like it, I sort of felt obliged to like it, and yet…I didn’t. Much to my increasing annoyance.

It’s like a bad date with a person you thought would be great, but isn’t. You end up with a handshake, the inevitable frustration that over how irritating everything went, and a wasted evening that could have been better spent watching your old Stargate Atlantis DVDs. This book is a lot like that.

The plot: The US and China are in a race to get to the moon first. The Chinese win, but their lander cracks up on the surface, stranding their astronauts. The US then launches a rapidly-cobbled-together rescue mission. This is treated in a sort of techno-thriller style, which sounds great, but alas it just doesn’t work in actual practice.

The biggest problem is the writing. There’s no polite way of dancing around this: it’s just really clunky, and there’s a strange kind of redundancy that runs through the whole thing. For instance, in an early scene a character explains to the protagonist a problem, which takes a paragraph or two. Then the protagonist says, “Ok, lemme see if I’ve got this” and repeats the explanation in a slightly different form. There’s foreshadowing that leads nowhere, such as a ground controller looking forward to punching a Chinese spy later on, but the spy never has another scene. There’s abandoned subplots, and others that lumber on for a hundred pages, then are abruptly wrapped up and tossed aside unsatisfactorily. There is no characterization to speak of, apart from “He had a southern accent” or “he was black,” and every character acts and talks pretty much like every other character. The prose is, charitably, frustrating.

Examples:

“The Chinese crashed on the MOON?” His mind was racing. His first thoughts were uncharitable toward those who had beaten him to the MOON. Getting there had driven his career and his life since he was a little boy listening to Gene Cernan say those final words before he and his crew left the MOON”

“He was also an ex-HACKER. When he was in highs school, he was expelled for HACKING the school’s computer system. When he was in college, he was arrested for HACKING a computer…”

“He, just like everyone else in the room, was starting to PERSPIRE. It was a stereotypically hot Houston afternoon in a room with stereotypically cold Houston air-conditioning doing nothint to prevent the PERSPIRATION form coming. It just made the SWEAT feel uncomfortably cold. The SWEAT starting to bead on Bill’s forehead…”

And so on. The emphasis is my own, of course, but do you see the problem there? Why use a word once when you can use it two or three times in the same paragraph. After forty or fifty pages of this, it really began to grate on me. Ok, not everyone is Nabokov, or even Heinlein, I get that: but this was something that could easily have been fixed one read through aloud and a thesaurus. There’s no call for this kind of sloppiness.

Many of the descriptions and explanations are awkward, too.

Examples:

“Dressed totally in black to match her jet-black hair, the neckline on her blouse dipping into dangerous territory due to too many buttons not fastened.”

“Building upon their demonstrated capability to destroy a satellite in earth orbit, which they did in 2007,”

“A checklist icon turned yellow on his monitor. The changing color caught his attention, which was why it was designed that way.”

This is weird given that techno thrillers revel in describing stuff in interesting fashion, and also in that the more mundane things are the ones the authors seem to be struggling with. I mean, how hard is it to describe a woman in a slutty dress? And how much fun is it to describe a woman in a slutty dress? It’s fighting ‘em, though, clearly.

Beyond the literary limitations, you’ve go the normal grab-bag of stuff here: Anti-Chinese paranoia (All computers built in China are secretly reporting everything back to the Chinese government), though this is offset quite a bit in the second half of the book when we actually *meet* some Chinese people as characters, some perfunctory espionage that kinda’ goes nowhere, bagging on congress, the plucky Ayn Randian industrialist/saint, some unabashed flagwaving:

“not only NASA will beat them [to the moon]. A bunch of lunatic, freewheeling, money-hungry capitalists will get there ahead of them, too! I’m all for it. God bless America!”

This last aspect is the books’ most engaging, but unfortunately there’s not nearly enough of it, and what little there is can’t offset the novel’s other serious problems.

Finally, around chapter 24 (Page 187 in the hardback) the story really gets going, and from then on out it’s a pleasant enough read, but by that point I had pretty much lost interest, and only continued because of my inherent OCD. (I can’t *not* finish a book. It‘ll nag me forever if I do.)

There’s a short afterword by one of the authors decrying the cancellation of the Constellation program and Obama which are entirely on the money, and also a few swipes taken at George W. Bush that really didn’t make sense to me, but given that my name is “Republibot 3.0” I might simply be biased. The author goes on to explain NASA’s budgetary problems, and makes a strong argument for that being the real root cause of the agency’s increasing suckitude over the last generation. Curiously, and unintentionally, despite the book being a love-letter to a spacecraft that’ll never be built, the Orion itself comes across as a complete piece of junk in the book, continually malfunctioning and on the edge of total self-destruction at any given moment. This is obviously for dramatic purposes, but a civilian spacecraft comes across as the real technological hero of the tale. This, I think, undercuts the authors’ intentions a bit.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Politically? Yes. Artistically? No.

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