I was too young to enjoy watching Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon in 1969, but I did grow up waiting in anticipation for the first Shuttle launch. (I still have my Young/Crippen mission patch!) I sent the NASA PR department about one letter every week in 1980 and 1981, asking for any pictures or brochures they could send me back. Over the course of two years, I had a stack about two feet tall of full-color books, pamphlets, technical documents (for public dissemination), and all kinds of photos and collector cards. My vision was bad, and I was old enough to know that astronaut training was out of the picture, but thoughts of actually working for NASA were always in the back of my mind. Years passed, school ended, job and family arrived, and the next thing I knew the shuttle was being retired. But still, my fascination with NASA continues, and I believe it always will.
A number of years ago, I discovered a sci-fi writer named Jack McDevitt. I could not get enough of his stories and have finally caught up with his entire catalog of short stories and novels. Now, when a new McDevitt novel is announced, it actually goes into my calendar so I can pick it up on New Book Tuesday.
I’m also a fan of Mike Resnick. Recently, I’ve discovered and enjoyed his steampunk-ish take on Doc Holliday in his A Weird West Tale series. Before that, I was reading his Starship series.
Well, my reminder pinged me a week ago that a new McDevitt novel was out, but this is a co-authored novel with Resnick. I don’t mind co-authored stories at all, and both men have the chops to tell excellent science fiction tales. The title of the new book is The Cassandra Project and, after having just finished it, I am so glad that I chose to ignore any summaries or teasers about the storyline. Typically, when I’m considering purchasing a new book, I’ll read the inside front cover blurb or maybe even do an Amazon search to get a story summary. Not with this one. I now prefer to go into a Jack McDevitt story not knowing anything. Nothing.
So, the problem I face is this — how do I best go about telling you to hunt down McDevitt’s and Resnick’s new story without giving away any major spoilers? And it’s a big problem! The overall plot is given away in the first few pages, so all I can do is warn you. Stop reading right now if you absolutely want ZERO heads-up on the story. I’ll avoid spoilers as best I can, but if you’re already a fan of either writer (or both), do yourself a favor and don’t read any further…. Trust your gut that like the writers’ previous stories, you’ll enjoy this one.
So … you’re not willing to trust your gut or maybe you just like to know a little about a story before you dive in? Okay, fine. Here’s a paragraph for you that gives you the gist of the story without any major spoilers.
Jerry works for NASA as the public affairs director, giving regular updates about the organization’s activities. During a routine press conference, a reporter asks about some recently declassified material from the Apollo missions (not all of which landed on the Moon). Specifically, there’s a short recording of a radio transmission between Mission Control (on Earth) and the astronauts of Apollo IX orbiting the Moon (but not on a landing mission). This recording opens up a can of worms for NASA; the president of the United States; a billionaire who is four months from launching his own moon mission; and poor Jerry, who is seeing NASA’s budget cut consistently and the space program slowly being dismantled. The book is one long mystery that will not let you stop reading. The clues, the findings, the secrets…. Everything is released in bits and pieces, but at a pace that draws you in fast in the first few chapters and doesn’t let up.
Is that enough? No? You want a few more details, huh? Okay, well don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t blame me if the next paragraph gives you just a little more information and ruins a couple of early surprises. Read on for a little more detail and maybe a secret or two (but don’t worry — there are a lot of secrets to be revealed in this story).
The key question raised early in the book is this: Was there an earlier landing made by the U.S. that history did not record? The authors do a good job of keeping you guessing — there’s evidence in the book that it did happen and evidence that it did not. Halfway through the book, I really could not make up my mind on whether I could accept this as fact or fiction. If it was fact, what could be so important that an entire landing mission would be swept under the rug? And if it was fiction, who would want to create a fake event to be hidden away and to what purpose? There are a small number of key players and a lot of minor players, and I was kept guessing until the last quarter of the book. And even after the truth is revealed, the authors throw in some doubt that manages to hold my attention to the very end — I really was expecting a twist on a twist on a twist. And, in a way, I did get it.
Included with the story is a lot of thought-provoking material on where we are going as a civilization. Medical breakthroughs, population explosion, and other topics of interest that are on our horizon (if not already on our doorstop) are woven into this 2019 tale that offers quite a bit of cautionary advice for a sci-fi tale. As someone who still looks at NASA with a smile, the book has given me additional material to think about in terms of exploration and who/what will do that exploring. The realities of our world such as economy, environment, and health and medical issues might not seem like they have a place in a science fiction story, but I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed McDevitt stories so much — I tend to forget that I’m reading a tale that takes place in the future because the storytelling and characters are still relatable, their problems are our problems, and humans will be humans.
The Cassandra Project only takes place seven years into the future, but the societal questions it raises were just as entertaining as the science fiction element. Enjoy the story for the Is-There-a-Conspiracy-or-Isn’t-There fun, but also enjoy it for the just-around-the-corner glimpse of the next decade that McDevitt and Resnick have created.