It's a mystery. I enjoy most science fiction films I watch, most books I read, yet I never actively seek science fiction books out to read. This particular book, Stephen Baxter's Titan, was in my bookcase for years before I finally picked it up, reading the summary on the back cover and trying to remember if I'd read it. A sticker on the front told me I had bought it on sale, but I had no recollection of it. This didn't seem like a promising start.
Half an hour into the book, I was ready to put it down again. Details upon details of spaceships and how they work, jargon that might as well be another language, and science. Lots of it. I was wondering when the story was going to begin. But, paradoxically, despite the book balancing precariously on the edge between good story-telling and Space Flight for Dummies, Baxter slowly but surely drew me in.
Titan is the story of a manned mission to the titular moon of Saturn. Five astronauts make their way through years and unfathomable empty spaces to what they hope will become a new frontier for mankind, at the same time as Earth undergoes a catastrophic crisis. It is a journey fuelled by curiosity, that basic human thirst for knowledge and, in the end, for finding out what comes next. Are we alone in the universe? And – something that is perhaps implied, but never openly discussed – what happens when we die?
The aforementioned details that, early on, threatened to bog down the novel, prove to be the catalyst for its success. They are precisely what turned the astronauts' bland journey to the outer reaches of our solar system to riveting fiction. They spoke to my own inner curiosity about how people would survive such a journey, both mentally and physically. I felt what the astronauts felt: their boredom, their detachment, their fears and hopes. My only minor complaint is that I never cared for the characters, never rooted for them other than that I wished they'd survive so I could follow them on their journey. Their personalities are almost interchangeable as soon as one strays from their job descriptions, and that makes it hard for the reader to find someone to identify with. We identify with the idea of them instead, that they represent mankind. But maybe that was the point? That we are all flawed and ultimately as boring as these five?
Titan is not a book about hope, at least not if you honestly believe that we are the masters of the universe. Yet it is not a book about despair, either. It is a book that explores what it is that gives meaning to our existence and that reminds us how small and insignificant we are as soon as we've left the gravity boundaries of our home planet.