My search for good indie sci-fi novels goes on. It is a perilous test of literary endurance, an endless journey through a wilderness of Kindle previews—perhaps an expedition into the heart of darkness itself. Some days I doubt I shall return with my health or sanity intact…
Just kidding. There is no place for snobbery here! Self-publishing really is better than people make it out to be, and has a lot of gems overlooked by the broader industry. Such was the case with Samuel Best’s 2017 novel Mission One, which deals with a manned expedition to Titan in the near future, and along the way treats the reader to a very entertaining (if scientifically shaky) ride through deep space.
The book is set sometime in the middle of the twenty-first century. Noah Bell, the billionaire CEO of Diamond Aerospace, is launching a four-man mission to Titan, using a revolutionary antimatter thermal drive that will get them there and back within a year. The crew’s task is to begin assembly of a research station in Titan orbit; they will not visit the surface, somewhat disappointingly, though nevertheless the voyage represents a tremendous leap for mankind, which has hitherto never ventured far beyond Mars.
Our protagonist is Jeff Dolan, an engineer who has recently been recruited for Diamond Aerospace. Joining him on the expedition is the commander, Tag Riley; the pilot, Li Ming, an astronaut of the Chinese National Space Agency; and a Brazilian biologist, Gabriel Silva. In the first few chapters they launch from Cape Canaveral and then rendezvous with the International Space Station up in orbit, where their ship Explorer 1 waits. The CEO, Noah Bell, has a lot riding on this mission; his rival MarsCorp has also expressed plans to reach Titan, so he very much wants to get his people there first.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, Jeff’s girlfriend Kate Bishop works as the Ground and Flight Teams Manager on the mission, reporting to the mission director, Frank Johnson. Fishy things start happening to her, though; a man claiming to have worked for Diamond Aerospace warns her of a flaw in the antimatter engine, only to turn up dead in a dumpster shortly afterwards. Not all is as it seems with Explorer 1, and Jeff may be in danger…
The book’s beginning was a little difficult to enjoy, I’ll admit that. For a little while I was convinced that I would give Mission One a significantly lower rating than I ultimately did. The first chapters are quite conventional, and they lack tension; they’re just an overview of Jeff getting into the capsule, Kate preparing for launch, the rocket launching into orbit, really all the stuff you would expect for a standard space exploration story. And when the author does indicate that there’s something strange going on, he does so heavy-handedly. Mysterious people show up wearing shades and dark suits, like your stereotypical men in black, and they drive black SUVs without license plates—way to stay inconspicuous! It comes across as fairly corny.
It’s towards the middle and end of Mission One, though, that Samuel Best’s writing really starts to shine. The central mystery develops steadily both on Earth and on the way to Titan; there are indications that there is an alien artifact orbiting Titan, changing the scope of the whole mission, while there is also plenty of danger for the astronauts and intrigue concerning the antimatter engine they rely upon. The plot goes in some unexpected directions. I ended up caring about several of the characters, too, which doesn’t always happen for me! The author was certainly doing something right when I was thrilled to see a character, thought dead, turn out to be alive and well, and in a position to save the day.
Now for a few spoilers (thought I won’t reveal every twist):
So when they arrive at Titan and find the alien artifact, they also find something else: another spacecraft, identical to their own. Turns out MarsCorp stole the design of Explorer 1 and used it to make their own version, the North Star. The North Star, however, does not respond to communications; boarding the ship reveals the brutal deaths of the crew, just a tad similar to Event Horizon (in a good way), and it is clear that the artifact, a featureless black halo, had something to do with it.
This is very much a Big Dumb Object story. There’s nothing wrong with that—just stating a fact. And as far as Big Dumb Objects and interactions with incomprehensible alien intelligence go, Samuel Best does a good job. Without going to details, the protagonists discover some interesting things , raising far more questions than answers, and they are kept in sufficient peril throughout—none of that Rendezvous with Rama-style dryness here!
It’s also interesting that for once the Elon Musk-type billionaire isn’t portrayed as evil. Despite hints to the contrary, Noah Bell turns out to be a good guy, and it was one of his underlings who was doing all the shady stuff and eliminating people. This leads to some interesting standoffs in Mission Control during the most crucial phase of the mission.
Back to the happenings in Titan orbit. Jeff makes a heroic sacrifice to save his fellow crewmembers, it is all very riveting—I read through 40% of the book in a sitting—and then the reader is treated to a surreal sequence of events involving the alien artifact and others like it, pretty much defying comprehension. I got extremely strong 2001 and Interstellar vibes from it. Definitely a lot of mysteries left to explore in the sequel…
Stylistically, Mission One is a well-edited book. Grammar mistakes and typos are a common pitfall for self-published novels, but Best almost entirely avoids them, at least as far as I noticed. The plot is entertaining and treads some new ground. The dialogue’s OK—stilted at times, and sometimes the jokes don’t quite get through. There isn’t a lot of breathtaking imagery, unlike, say, some Stephen Baxter novels I’ve read, but altogether the prose gets the job done. Technical descriptions, meanwhile, are often hard to follow, which meant that I ended up with only a vague idea of the workings and appearance of Explorer 1.
My biggest gripe is the scientific accuracy. There are many oversights in this book, and I’ll only mention a few, to illustrate. For instance, when Explorer 1 arrives at Titan, Jeff describes the moon as almost a speck in the command module window; nevertheless, Saturn is hidden behind it, which would only be the case at a maximum of 57,000 kilometers from the surface (I hopped onto SpaceEngine to test this). This isn’t a one-off fluke, it’s a symptom of the author’s problems with scale. On the way to Titan, they’re stated to zip past Ceres in a few seconds, which is ridiculously fast even for a ship traveling on a six-month flight to Saturn (back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest at least 77 km/s for the ship’s velocity, slow enough that Ceres would linger in the viewports for a day or two). There’s also a point in the story where Jeff is unsure whether the antimatter engine can get them back, so he floats a four-year return trajectory using an unspecified secondary propulsion method. Just a Hohmann orbit from Saturn to Earth takes many km/s of delta-v and six years of flight time; there’s no way he’s managing a return unless he happens to have a VASIMR drive or something lying around.
Anyway. Those are pretty much my thoughts on Mission One. It was a long review, but that’s only because I have a lot to say about this book. Should you read it? Absolutely, if you’re at all interested in a tense narrative about the exploration of the outer Solar System and the unraveling of an alien mystery; I, for one, will be checking out the sequel.