The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick
To start us off with The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick (Ace, 2012), I need quickly to remind you about Cassandra. You may remember all that kerfuffle over Troy when that Helen babe was abducted. Well Cassandra was the nut who kept telling everyone this was a really bad idea. She’d fallen out with Apollo and he cursed her with the power of prophesy (which is pretty cool) but ensured no-one would ever believe her (which is deeply frustrating). “No don’t take the wooden horse inside the walls, you twits!” was one of her better lines. All of which erudition bring me to the idea of conspiracy theories. These are the “secret” deals and cover-ups by the politicians, the military and the monied power-brokers. Needless to say, there’s never any real evidence of such back-room deals, but we’re all invited to believe them as true. As examples of such potentially paranoid delusions, think about the mythology surrounding the JFK assassination, whether the moon landing in 1969 was a government hoax, and the idea that George Bush allowed the 9/11 attacks to justify attacking Iraq. Obviously these are not the kind of prophesies Cassandra would have made.
So this book is about the moon landing program in the 1960s. I remember not going to work so I could watch the television coverage of the Eagle setting down and then that moment recorded indelibly in the memory, “That’s one small step for man. . .” I always wonder how long it took the PR people to come up with that line for Neil Armstrong. It’s a beautifully crafted moment. Coming to this book, we have a perfect example of plausible science fiction — that’s the best kind. It’s the truth ripped from tomorrow’s news headlines. Let’s take Heinlein novels as good and bad examples. Rocket Ship Galileo has our juvenile heroes finding a Nazi base on the moon — seem to remember Iron Sky (2012) rerunning that idea. The Man Who Sold the Moon sees a wealthy businessman invest every last nickel in getting to the moon. The persistence of a lone capitalist opens up “outer space” for commercial exploitation. Who needs government when you have men like Delos David Harriman?
At this point, I need to remind you about Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which boldly went into alternate history territory with a story about a mission from the Apollo program ending in the death of the crew. Those of you who can remember back to the 1960s will recall all the missions returned safely. It’s a pleasing variation on the “what if” theme, in this case inviting us to speculate whether the moon missions would have continued had there been such a public disaster. This novel is also playing a “what if” game and, although it’s by no means original, it has the virtue of being the first time I’ve seen it tied in with the Apollo program. Put very simply, the authors want us to consider what might have induced the Americans and the Russians to collude in a cover-up. This was more or less at the height of the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh in everyone’s mind. The two superpowers were still effectively on a war footing. Why should they suddenly agree to collaborate? Even more surprisingly, what would the connection be with the Watergate scandal in 1972. History is very clear that the republican President Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters for political purposes. It’s impossible there could be any connection with the moon landings, isn’t it? Yet this book suggests a different motive for the break-in.
All in all, The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick is a slick and professional job, rewriting history not only to explain the original problem, but also to justify the cover-up — the whole being a genuinely impressive puzzle-solving mystery. Confronted by the same set of facts, I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but I concede the risks of a major conflict at that time were significant, so a safety-first approach along these lines might have been expedient. As to the politics at the time the action is set in 2019. . . Well, I suppose it’s all plausible given likely continuing tensions in the Middle East and other parts of the world. This might be the time to let the dogs continue their fifty year sleep. So from this, you can see the book is appealingly thoughtful on both the alternate history front and the politics of it all. On the way, there are moments of amusement as the authors take potshots at the PR industry, publishers and other easy targets. It’s a top class read!
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire
The Trojan Colt.