BOOK REVIEW: “Voyage” by Stephen Baxter (1996)

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Best. Alternate. History. Novel. Ever.

Seriously: Best. Alternate. History. Novel. Ever. Period. End Sentence.

I love alternate history novels. I like a window in to worlds where established history traveled down a different road from our own. I love visions of the myriad different ways the modern world could have turned out. I adore the questions of identity that arise when you see how people could have turned out differently had they lived through altered circumstances.

Even so, it’s a sub-genre that tends to annoy most, and not without good reason. As Niven one pointed out, it’s too easy: anyone with a good almanac or a history book can write their own alternate history. It’s also frequently badly done. For every good book like Bring the Jubilee (1953) or Ada (1969) or The Man in the High Castle (1962), or hilarious like The Kennedy Enterprise (1992), you’ve got a zillion half-assed ones like A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah (1972) (in which we loose the American Revolution, and are still part of the British Empire, and yet the Kennedys are still a political dynasty, and Texans still wear cowboy hats), or Fire on the Mountain (1988) where a the American South ends up as a communist hyper technologically advanced independent black nation called “Nova Africa,” that launches missions to Mars in the 50s, and in which Elvis is an auto mechanic. Really. A fundamental flaw in the logic of these books seems to be wish fulfillment, rather than a realistic extrapolation of history. I read one short story where Abraham Lincoln *Wasn’t* assassinated, and became such a hero that the Russians venerated him, established a constitutional monarch based on his example, and Communism never got off the ground. What? How is any of that likely? If Lincoln had survived, he’d have been more likely to have been impeached than venerated. Gah. Or then there’s the Probability Broach series, in which George Washington is hung by irate unpaid soldiers shortly after the Revolution, thereby causing the US to become a libertarian utopia in which monkeys can talk. And vote. Really. How much of that follows logically?

Another disadvantage is that Alternate Histories tend to be entirely too culturally based. We’ve all seen a zillion “The South Won The Civil War” stories, and frankly it’s become a bit of a bore. Likewise, if someone did a novel where an alternate history evolved from a Oliver Cromwell getting defeated during the English Civil War, would anyone outside of England care?

So I’ll admit that there’s a lot of low cards in that particular hand, and yet I love it still because there are aspects of SF that no other subgenre can touch, that no other form of writing can do. When it’s done correctly (which I’ll be the first one to admit doesn’t happen very often). Yet I'm the first to admit that Alternate History is, and has always been, a somewhat faithless lover.

But shall I tell you what bugs me most about Alternate histories? They’re all about war. Now, I’ve got nothing against war as a plot device, but virtually every Alternate Timeline diverges off as the result of a war. Generally, it’s the same, too: What if the Bad Guys won The Revolution, The Civil War, Either of the World Wars, etc. And it’s always the same wars, too, over and over. I don’t think I’d mind so much if someone wrote a story about a different outcome to the War of 1812, but I am Soooooooooooooooooooooo freakin’ sick of hearing about the damn US Civil War. Granted, this can be done fascinatingly - as in High Castle - but all too often, it’s just an overused cliché. I mean, aren’t there *other* less obvious, less violent points upon which the course of history can change?

Which is what makes “Voyage” by Stephen Baxter so completely remarkable: he’s come up with a coherent, well-written, internally consistent alternate history novel that does *not* hinge on a war. And it’s hard-SF, too! Which brings us to the actual ‘review’ portion of this review:

Without giving too much away, the book starts off with the launch of the first manned mission to Mars lifting off from Cape Kennedy on March 22nd, 1985. This was already eleven years *before* the book was published, so it was a kind of deliberate and clever sting to set the SF book in the past, rather than the future. From that point, the story jumps back to the first manned moon landing in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and fictional astronaut Joe Muldoon are on the surface, trudging about and listening to a congratulatory message from President Nixon. Then Nixon excuses himself, and introduces ex-president Kennedy, who gives them another congratulatory message, and then challenges the nation to not stop here, but rather to go on to Mars!

So we’re two scenes into the book, and there’s already been two unexpected ‘grabber’ scenes. From here on it settles down a bit, but we find that Kennedy survived his assassination attempt, but was crippled, and resigned the presidency for health reasons. LBJ took over, and history followed pretty much the course we all know, except that Kennedy became a beloved venerable figure cheering on the space program from the sidelines and keeping up support for it.

From that point on, the narrative divides itself between the high points in the Ares mission - their flyby of Venus in September of ’85, their actual landing at Mars in March of ’86, etc - and a really detailed exploration of the ways history diverged to allow us to get their by that time. But this is not just another case of “Kennedy said let’s go to Mars, and then we went, the end.” No, the story is actually a detailed explanation of how you get from “Decision” to “plan” to “implementation.” In fact, it’s more convoluted than that, as there’s a particularly devastating and heart-rending accident in the middle of the book which necessitates them having to come up with *another* plan, and work out the implementation of that. There’s also an enormously important exploration of the compromises that had to happen to get us to the finish line. This is all pretty compelling, fascinating stuff, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Examples: In order to fund the Mars mission, it was necessary to conserve the existing Saturn V rockets, so the Apollo program ended prematurely with the fourth landing. In the real world, there were six Apollos on the moon. Since they know they work, and they’re trying to save money, the Saturn Series of rockets continue in production, and the Space Shuttle program is killed early on. We do, however, get a modified version of a Saturn V with four shuttle-styled SRBs on it which can launch twice as much payload, and that’s just super cool and sexy. We get a scaled back, yet strangely more effective version of the Skylab project. We get some surprisingly cooperative detente with the Soviet Space program, which is the exact kind of thing that Nixon was actually shooting for, but which fizzled in the real world. The Soviets, meanwhile, manage to get their massive N1 rockets working, whereas in the real world that program was cancelled in 1974. On every page, the cost of this undertaking - in human, industrial, and economic terms - is immediately apparent and glorious. And occasionally tragic and gripping.

What’s more, the Aerospace industry is considerably more blue-collar in the book than we’re used to seeing. We spend time with the construction workers who actually build the rockets, the engineers who test the mars landers to destruction, then re-design them and do it again and again, even as their own families are falling apart. We see bonds form and shift between Astronauts and Cosmonauts, who don’t really trust each other, but find themselves liking each other just the same - because frankly it’s impossible *not* to like someone who straps a rocket to their ass and rides fire. The political wrangling to keep the project on course is Byzantine and fascinating.

Furthermore, it’s entirely hard science. We’re using known vehicles like Saturn Vs and N1s and Skylab-series Space Stations, the exotic drive systems they’re developing in the book are ones that were actually being tested by the USAF and NASA in the 70s, but which were abandoned in the real world. Here they live long enough to bear fruit, of a kind. Virtually everything that happens in this book technically speaking is something that NASA seriously looked at doing from time to time, until Carter permanently hobbled the space program in ‘77. Everything that happens in this book is not only plausible, it was to a greater or lesser degree actually *planned.* This is an Alternate History in which there are no weirdly illogical flights of fancy and wish fulfillment - this is a history that actually feels real from the get-go. If we had gone on to Mars immediately following Apollo, the real chronology of events probably wouldn’t have been too terribly much different from this.

Characterization is solid, good, but a bit dry in places. All the characters are fully realized individuals, and I don’t want to give the impression that this is a boring book, because it’s not, but Baxter is English, and all of his characters are American, so he goes out of his way to make them feel American. I sense that attempting to rein in some of his inherent Anglicisms might have inadvertently made some of the characters a bit more restrained and distant than they would have otherwise, but he had to do it. This isn’t really a problem, with the exception of Ralph Gershon, America’s fictional first black astronaut. The intention was to portray him as coming from a different generation and outlook than the Apollo crews did, but I don’t think it really worked, and I don’t think we ever really connect with his character the way we’re intended to. Conversely, the character arc for Natalie York - from socially awkward graduate student to geologist to astronaut candidate to Mars mission crewperson - is very well done, and more than a little touching without being cloying. A lot of this works because she remains fairly socially awkward through the whole thing, but through the course of the story gradually comes to peace with who she is and what she’s done with her life. It’s neat, neat stuff. We have an good example of an actual “Empowered Female Protagonist” (As the Liberals like to say) who’s not a shrill lesbian, not a hasty re-write of a male character, but rather a very smart three-dimensional person with flaws and abilities, and it’s a pleasure to watch her grow. Her strangely de facto partnership with fellow astronaut Ben Priest is unlike any other romantic pairing I’ve read of in an SF novel, and yet it feels very real, very true to life, very much like the kind of things that probably happens to a lot of the College Professors I used to know. “It’s love, Jim, but not as we know it,” I guess.

The story follows the basic James Michner plot device of having fictional characters walking alongside real ones in a somewhat romanticized version of history. Thus we have Neil Armstrong, but no Buzz Aldrin. We have Werner von Braun, but we’ve also got the fictional Hans Udet working side-by-side with him. As time passes and the fictional history diverges more and more from ‘real’ history, these fictional characters begin to take more and more of the center stage, eclipsing the old guard, which is, of course, exactly as you’d expect it to be. All this is handled very well and believably.

This is a great, great, great, book and very strongly recommended. It avoids all of the flaws of the Alternate History subgenre, and most of the flaws of the “First mission to Mars” stories as well. It is ultimately a fascinating window in to a world that didn’t happen, but honest-to-God could have. He has transcended the genre, simply by actually *doing* what the genre claimed it wanted to do all along, but was never really very much interested in. And with that simple act the faithless lover that is Alternate History Stories proves she can perhaps be redeemed after all and gives me a great big wet kiss on the lips. It's like we've met for the very first time. Everything is reborn, everything is new. Thank you, Stephen Baxter, thank you!

Strongly, strongly, strongly recommended.


Hell yes! If they don't, I'll come over to their houses and beat them!