Russell Letson reviews Jack McDevitt & Mike Resnick
The random activities of publishers and writers have resulted in a number of collaborations showing up in the stack on my dresser recently – novels by Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross, Larry Niven & Greg Benford, Larry Niven & Edward M. Lerner, and Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck (DBA James S. A. Corey). The newest all-star pairing in this (probably-accidental) pattern is of Jack McDevitt & Mike Resnick, whose The Cassandra Project is an expansion and considerable reworking (or even a complete reimagining) of a McDevitt short story of the same title that appeared in Lightspeed in 2010. Even though the story’s reconstruction is shared with another writer, the novel is dominated by features and feelings familiar from McDevitt’s Alex Benedict solo novels: a puzzle rooted in past events; a search for answers that requires rummaging through old memories and fragmentary records; a cast of all-too-human characters, even the ones who are eccentric billionaires or leaders of the free world.
There are three viewpoint characters, but the search for answers starts with Jerry Culpepper, who is not a professional digger-out-of-secrets like Alex Benedict, but head PR flack at a very-near-future NASA. By 2019, the Agency Culpepper is representing is considered less and less relevant, its glory days of manned missions long gone and its very existence threatened by budget restrictions and waning public interest. Culpepper spends his time presiding over weekly press conferences or, as the novel begins, small-beer events like the opening of an exhibit celebrating the glory days of manned spaceflight and moon landings. But when a tabloid finds a copy of an anomalous radio transmission from one of the moon-orbiting Apollo flights, the official version of the first lunar landing is called into question.
The more Culpepper tries to explain why this is a non-issue, the more silly-season play the story gets, mostly at his expense. But to billionaire Morgan ‘‘Bucky’’ Blackstone, who would like to ramrod a private-enterprise return to space exploration, it’s something worth following up in a more serious way. Blackstone is a captain of industry who started out as Hugh Heffner and ended up as a cross between Howard Hughes and Donald Trump (though without the long fingernails or bad hair), with a big dose of Heinlein’s D. D. Harriman (and maybe Jubal Harshaw as well). So he starts looking, too – and also decides that the lunar expedition he has been mounting might be able to find some answers when it lands on the far side of the moon. Meanwhile, President George Cunningham decides he would like some answers as well, since even with access to all manner of government secrets, he can’t figure out what might or might not have happened a half-century ago, and why nobody told him about it.
The puzzles just keep getting more puzzling – an excellent trait in a narrative driven by puzzles. It’s clear early on that (despite initial uncertainty on the part of some characters) odd things really did happen on a couple of pre-Apollo-XI lunar missions and that all records of such events were thoroughly and deeply buried. Thus the questions pile up: not only ‘‘Were there early, secret moon landings?’’ but ‘‘What was found out there?’’ and ‘‘Why was it all kept secret?’’ and ‘‘Where are the answers hidden?’’ The suspense remains nicely suspended across the story’s long, gradual arc, while we watch Bucky Blackstone act out his Man Who Sold the Moon ambitions as Culpepper digs and digs and President Cunningham does the same from his end, and with considerably more powerful tools.
It’s a rather old-fashioned story, with a feeling not unlike the Heinlein-homage of [Allen Steele’s] Apollo’s Outcasts, and it resolves in ways that Readers of a Certain Age will recognize immediately on Page Last. (And that are designed to surprise readers of the short story version.) Despite the potentially history-changing nature of the secrets, there is a distinct lack of melodrama: there are no villains in the cast, and the pace is leisurely as we make our way through the everyday operations of bureaucracy, politics, journalism, and even the nosebleed levels of wildcat capitalism. That said, I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could, even though there was nary a dead body or superweapon or car chase to be found. And that’s an interesting trick in itself.