Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Cassandra Project Lifts Off, Almost

The Cassandra Project
If there was ever a book that could have been better, The Cassandra Project fits. The "what if" asked by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick lifts off higher than the near future mystery they actually wrote. And yet, despite every intuitive note struck being accompanied by another in the wrong key, there is still plenty to pull from this story that relies more on talk than the tech adventure it could have been.

The Cassandra Project asks something simple enough. What if there really is a mystery surrounding the abandonment of the Apollo space program? Specifically, what if early astronauts found something on the far side of the moon that prompted a Nixon-era reaction to shutter the Apollo program and initiate one of the largest coverups in NASA history? Maybe it would even explain the Watergate scandal.

The story that sparked the collaboration.

The Cassandra Project was originally written as a short story by McDevitt in 2010 and published online by Light Speed Magazine. The original is considerably tighter than the novel, not only in word count but also in the direction the author decided to take it. It's straight up with few frills.

In contrast, the expansion with collaborator Resnick hits as much as it misses. Instead of being played out in the present, the authors place the retelling a few years into the future, one where remorse over the loss of a new lunar program has finally sunk in for the generation that lost it.

The dour sentiment surrounding this realization is amplified within NASA, given that the struggling space agency is facing more cutbacks as its ever-shrinking mission objectives are harder to justify. The path of this self-fulfilling prophecy is painful but accurate. This near future government wants to cut funding for loftier goals, and then wants to cut funding because the goals aren't lofty enough.

In NASA's diminished state, commercial interests are setting their sights on space. It is their vision that now drives a new interest in space exploration. The logic is plausible. Technological advancements, unlimited resources, and unclaimed real estate will be more abundant up there more than it is down here. If nations don't want it, then corporations will eventually pave the way to the stars.

The characters are a mixed bag, much like the story.

Jack McDevittAt the forefront of exploration is eccentric billionaire Bucky Blackstone, an almost likable cross between Richard Branson and Donald Trump. Where his character lacks the panache of Branson or Trump, however, is in that every conversation always descends into (or ascends from) his only connection to anyone — they are on his payroll. It becomes tedious, boring, and then annoying to read  over and over. There has never been a "billionaire of the people" so shallow, real or not.

Given this, McDevit and Resnick make a mistake in shifting a good part of the story perspective to Blackstone and away from protagonist Jerry Culpepper, public relations director for NASA. Culpepper is both likable and interesting on the front end, torn between protecting NASA as the conspiracy theory takes center stage while secretly attempting to uncover the truth for himself.

Mike Resnick
His internal conflict between suspicion and skepticism works and the authors portray the role of public relations accurately, even if their portrayal of press feels more like 1959 as opposed to 2019. Later in the book, Culpepper is botched a bit it in a throwaway section that puts him between jobs at a publishing house that represents prima donna authors. It's a pointless bit, unless it was personal.

In a novel without a clear antagonist, they also give ample room to the next U.S. President. Oddly, he treats the conspiracy plot as mostly an annoyance. His bigger purpose is to provide a global view of things around the corner. Overpopulation, medical breakthroughs (and ethical consequences), economic challenges, foreign affairs, and other issues are convincingly alluded to through his eyes.

The bits are bigger and more enjoyable than the story. 

Given the accomplishments of McDevitt and Resnick, The Cassandra Project promises to frustrate many readers, despite having merit in several dozen concepts explored. Anyone willing to forgive the lack of character development will enjoy it for other reasons: the consequence of abandoning a space program, the allure of corporations picking up the slack, an alternative conspiracy theory related to the Apollo program (and Nixon), and an accurate glimpse of global issues in the near future.

If the mixed reviews raise any doubts, it can be best summed up this way: Some people couldn't get past the clunk of it and rated it low. Some let their imaginations run wild and rated it high. Mostly, the subject is interesting even if the story lacks substance. And although some people will claim the ending is a letdown, it's potentially plausible that people aren't ready to accept what's out there.

The Cassandra Project Almost Lifts Off At 2.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Reading the short story first will not spoil the novel. If McDevitt and Resnick did anything right, it is in finding the right balance between staying true to the original work while adding something new. At the same time, they do enough wrong that while there is enough to make the book better than average, it's not nearly as good as most people expected.

The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick is available from Amazon. You can also order the novel from Barnes & Noble or download it from iBooks for Apple devices. The audiobook is on iTunes. As the narrator, Brian Holsopple brings considerable life to the material, especially his portrayal of character Culpepper and the plight of NASA today.
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