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Literature / Voyage

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Mars awaits...

Voyage is a 1996 Alternate History novel by British science fiction writer Stephen Baxter. It is set in a timeline with a simple divergence from our history: Lee Harvey Oswald didn't manage to assassinate US president John F. Kennedy and, by accident, shot his wife instead.

The alternate 1960s pass mostly in a vein similar to our own history, but subtle little divergences keep popping up. The final, major divergence of the timeline occurs after the first Moon landing in 1969. The now-retired president Kennedy is allowed a few moments of radio contact, in order to do a little congratulatory speech to the Apollo 11 crew. To everyone's surprise, Kennedy very blatantly hints at the need to focus on making a similar landing on Mars in the coming decade. This eventually forces NASA to cave in to popular pressure from people that were moved by Kennedy's speech. In about two years after the first Moon landing, the history of American astronautics starts taking a rather different route than the one we know...

The novel then follows - both in chronological and anachronic order - the various spaceflight developments of the 70s and 80s, through the eyes of a diverse cast of primary and secondary characters (some historical, some fictional). In the late 1970s, NASA launches a test flight of a promising and much-touted Mars spacecraft. However, things go awry... The American space program is then forced to work quickly on a new solution for the Mars mission, or else it's curtains...

Eventually, in March 1985, a semi-improvised mission dubbed Ares is finally launched from Cape Canaveral. Aboard are three carefully picked astronauts: Phil Stone, Ralph Gershon and Natalie York. And the titular voyage to Mars begins...

The novel won the 1997 Sidewise Award for Alternate History and was nominated that same year for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Also in 1997, BBC Radio 4 had adapted Voyage into a five-part abridged radio play (since then, it has been rebroadcast occasionally, last time in 2009).

This novel contains examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Ralph Gershon is a ground attack ace who served in Vietnam. Phil Stone is a subversion, since he's a retired Korean War ace that moved on to being a test pilot of the X-15 suborbital spaceplane in the 50s and 60s.
  • Allohistorical Allusion: The author has fun with Shout Outs to the names of the Space Shuttle orbiters from our timeline (which weren't built in this one due to the changed priorities of the US space program):
    • As part of the larger Ares spacecraft, the Apollo command module (crew capsule) itself is dubbed Discovery. In fairness, as the characters themselves lampshade, they christen it after the ship of 16th/17th century explorer Henry Hudson. This is basically the same decision as in OTL with the eponymous Space Shuttle orbiter.
    • The habitation module of the Ares spacecraft is dubbed Endeavour, in honor of James Cook's most famous exploratory vessel. You probably know already which spacecraft from our timeline received that same name...
    • The Mars landing module, built by the fictional company Columbia Aviation, is christened Challenger. The first Mars landing occurs in spring 1986. In our timeline, a major spaceflight accident occurred in January 1986, concerning a certain Space Shuttle during its take-off... The name of the Mars lander might also be a reference to the lunar module of Apollo 17, also named Challenger. Since Apollo 17 is cancelled in the novel's timeline, the name of the module could still remain unused and seem novel to the alternate NASA's staff.
  • Alternate History: One that focuses primarily on alternate spaceflight developments and the fate of the people involved in them.
  • Anachronic Order: The main narrative strand of the novel is the flight to Mars itself aboard the Ares, following the three main characters (Phil Stone, Natalie York and Ralph Gershon). However, each chapter of the main narrative is intercut with a flashback chapter that focuses on the past careers and experiences of the main and secondary characters, in a time span of an alternate quarter century (from the early 1960s to the mid 1980s).
  • Audience Surrogate: Natalie York, who's also the closest thing to a main protagonist in the novel. She's not a professional astronaut, just the mission's geologist. She's the only civilian in the three member crew of the Ares. In the chapters showing her student years and early fascination with planetary geology, she often plays the role of a Deadpan Snarker that is critical of overambitious and risky spacecraft projects, such as NERVA.
  • Author Avatar: Subverted. Some feel that Natalie slips into this occasionally, in addition to being an Audience Surrogate character. But most of the time, she is just her own character. While Baxter uses her at times for Deadpan Snarker comments about overhyped or overcomplicated spacecraft projects (like NERVA), he generally tries to avoid making her sound preachy or having an Out-of-Character Moment.
  • Casual Interplanetary Travel: Averted all the way, since the novel tries to accurately portray what a realistic mission to Mars would be like. Especially one that utilizes mostly reused older equipment and avoids opting for overly high-tech solutions.
  • Executive Meddling: Occurs in-universe both in a negative and positive sense. The main positive example would be Kennedy's congratulatory speech to the Apollo 11 astronauts. He deliberately peppers it with openly provocative hints of "We need to follow this up with a flight to Mars ASAP!" He does it partly to help promote the importance of continuing US manned spaceflight past the end of the Apollo programme and partly because he wants to troll president Nixon in a Friendly Rivalry kind of way...
  • Expy / Captain Ersatz: Joe Muldoon instead of Buzz Aldrin. Baxter never adequately explains whether Muldoon is Buzz Aldrin with the Serial Numbers Filed Off or whether he is meant to be a wholly fictional character (though one that is similar to Aldrin personality-wise).
  • For Want Of A Nail: President Kennedy survived the Dallas assassination attempt and further influences NASA's decision-making throughout the following decade. An early hint of the alternate history aspects of the novel comes from the otherwise throwaway mention of the "Jacqueline B. Kennedy Space Center", instead of the John F. Kennedy Space Center of our timeline.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: The test flight of the NERVA-style (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) Mars spacecraft in the late 70s ends in complete fiasco. The entire crew is killed and the fallout - both figurative and literal - creates a massive Hype Backlash against the project and casts a shadow over NASA as a whole. But the situation improves, NASA gets its act together and launches a replacement Mars mission within less than a decade.
  • Historical Domain Character: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Neil Armstrong, John Young and many, many more...
  • In Spite of a Nail: The novel's alternate 1960s aren't that different from ours (much of NASA's program is the same, there is still a Vietnam War, etc.), but the geopolitical and spaceflight divergences start to gradually stack up after the early 1970s. It is stated, however, that Apollo 13 still had its mishap. There is also no change to who is elected President – the only difference is that Jimmy Carter's Vice President is Ted Kennedy rather than Walter Mondale.
  • Interplanetary Voyage: As the title implies. Even though the idea of a flight to Mars seems fairly low-concept, Baxter manages to make it interesting by explaining in depth all the technical, economic and political obstacles and challenges along the way, as well as giving detailed descriptions of the solutions involved. Best of all, he does it in layman terms and manages to pull it off without the novel coming across as boring or full of technobabble.
  • Meaningful Name: While it is based mostly on modified Apollo program hardware and its derivatives, the spacecraft to Mars is christened "Ares" - after the Greek god of war that the Roman one was based on. The name "Ares" has been pretty popular for various proposed rockets and spacecraft from our history.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Mostly averted, but also played straight in a few instances - particularly with replacing Buzz Aldrin with a certain Joe Muldoon. Also, while the trio of main characters is fictional, some readers have suggested they're based (to varying degrees) on these three Real Life astronauts:
    • Phil Stone -> Joe Engle
    • Ralph Gershon -> Guion Bluford
    • Natalie York -> Sally Ride (though she's the most loosely related or similar to her real world counterpart)
  • Oh, Crap!: Phil's reaction in one of the retrospective chapters, where the attitude thrusters on his X-15 start malfunctioning due to a technical error.
  • Shown Their Work: Baxter really did try to do his premise justice and it shows. The technology used for the flight to Mars is, for the most part, based directly on cancelled 60s and 70s projects that were well in the range of economic and technological plausibility. The only parts of the Ares spacecraft that are largely fictional and based on conjecture are the habitation module and Challenger landing module. And even then, it is hinted at that the habitation module was designed in a manner similar to the Skylab space station's living quarters from our timeline. The Challenger landing module is also inspired by the Mars Excursion Module (MEM) lander concept from the late 1960s and has a corresponding outward layout.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Baxter's works often have a skeptical and cynical outlook on humanity, especially its tendency for short-sighted apathy towards science. While this novel does highlight some of the failings of spaceflight programs and attitudes towards them in both our and the alternate timeline, the conclusion and final message of the novel is essentially optimistic. The crew successfully land in Mangala valley on Mars and Natalie, to her surprise, is given the opportunity to be the first human being to walk on another planet. She hesitates, but accepts and casts the first footprints in the red soil. After a silent stroll in front of the cameras, she hesitates over what to say. As a geologist at heart, she feels humbled by the Martian landscape. Finally, she exclaims a happy "I'm home.".
  • Small Reference Pools: Averted in regards to the planned landing site of the Mars mission. The landing is supposed to take place in the valley of Mangala Valles. While known, it is certainly not one of the Martian geographic features that are considered highly iconic in the popular imagination.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: The Ares mission in general, particularly when you consider it was cobbled together after the original, technologically far more grandiose Mars mission, failed spectacularly. It is also a kind of subversion, since the Ares comes across as Boring, but Practical at face value.
  • Single-Biome Planet: Justified in the case of Mars, given how, from an Earthling's point of view, it's an entirely inhospitable rocky alien desert planet. Subverted in that, outside of Earth, Mars has some of the most varied surface geography of any planet in the Solar System.
  • Spinoff: Baxter also wrote the short story Prospero One, which is set in the same universe, but focuses on alternate developments of the 1960s British space programme. Several Shout Outs are given to the main novel and there are even more Allohistorical Allusions towards the history of spaceflight in our timeline - in this case, the stillborn British spaceflight programme that seemed promising for a certain amount of time in the 1960s, before its cancellation by Harold Wilson. The name of the eponymous manned spacecraft in the short story is a nod at the Prospero X-3 satellite, launched in our version of the 1960s.
  • Token Minority: Ralph Gershon wants to actually avert this trope by proving that he didn't join the Ares mission just because he's a black astronaut.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: The design that becomes the final Ares spacecraft is at first rejected on the grounds that it is far too slow and technologically obsolete. After the NERVA accident in the late 70s, NASA and the US government reconsider and decide to try out the original proposal after all, instead of fancier, but risky technology. And it really works. Also, the fictional company Columbia Aviation is dismissed as not having much of a chance to win the design contract for the Mars lander, but NASA eventually adopts it and strikes a deal with the small company.
  • What If?: What if NASA had pulled off a manned mission to Mars already in the mid-1980s? Also, "1960s-1980s astronautics what-ifs" in general...
  • Wish-Fulfillment: Subverted massively, since Baxter was well aware of the limitations of supporting a large-scale space programme, even in an alternate timeline. His ultimate point seems to be: "If you want to go to Mars in the 70s or 80s, fine. But you'll have to make some harsh sacrifices." Yes, the Apollo program hardware is further expanded upon and is eventually used for a manned flight to Mars. Yes, research into NERVA rockets gets further than in our history due to increased funding. But, on the downside: The Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions are cancelled, the Space Shuttle project is completely stillborn, and worst of all, most of the useful planetary space probes from our history were cancelled in this timeline. The American space station projects are expanded though. This is all done so the manned flight to Mars can profit from a larger budget and more astronauts experienced in above-orbit spaceflights. The lack of sufficient space probe exploration in Voyage's timeline (no Mariner 10, Pioneer, Voyager, Viking probes) eventually leads to an unfortunate consequence: Astronomers, common people and even the crew of the Mars mission know far less detailed information about the planets of the Solar System than people in our timeline knew during the same historical period. This includes Mars, due to the cancellation of the Viking missions. Be Careful What You Wish For indeed!
  • Writer on Board: Though handled subtly, it is clear that the author would have preferred it if the US government had funded NASA better after the end of the Apollo programme and would have been overjoyed if the landings on Mars had already happened.

Adaptations of the novel:

  • The aforementioned 5-part radio play, presenting a somewhat abridged adaptation of the novel. Produced in 1997 by BBC Radio 4.
  • Game Mod: The novel has enough of a following among the Alternate History and Science Fiction fandoms that it didn't take long for a mod based on the novel to appear - as an add-on for the Orbiter Spaceflight Simulator. You can find it here. There's also an add-on that roughly adapts the ill-fated NERVA-style spacecraft from the novel.
  • Fan Film: As an extension of the above Ares mod, Orbiter fan Seferino Rengel has used it to make an intriguing machinima adaptation of the mission's entire flight. In under 10 minutes, complete with a stirring soundtrack. You can watch it here.