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Book Review – The Casandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick

CassandraProjTitle: The Cassandra Project
Author: Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick
Publisher: Ace Books
First Published: November 2012
Genre: Sci-Fi / Conspiracy Fiction

I picked up this book mainly because Jack McDevitt was one of the authors. He’s a nice guy to sit and chat with, if you ever have a chance, and his books often have an old fashion pulp science fiction flavor that I rather like. The Cassandra project does, which is good in some ways, but in this particular case, I think the ending suffers as a result. I’ll try to explain why later without too many spoilers.

The story is set in the U.S.A. in 2019. The world economy is in the doldrums, the rich have gotten richer, and NASA has been underfunded for years. Some people are dismayed by the fact, but no one doubts that the last moon landing was in 1972. However, there are recent rumors that Apollo XI in 1969 may not have been the first. Were there two secret landings before this, and, if so, why?

This is the central mystery of the story. It is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is Jerry Culpepper, who enters the tale as the public affairs director for NASA, and he comes to suspect that there may be some truth to the rumors. The official position he is told to convey is that there is not. He eventually quits because of this. You have to admire his personal integrity.

The other central character is Montgomery “Bucky” Blackstone, Owner of Blackstone Enterprises, Blackstone Development, and Blackstone Innovations. He’s a bit crude and extremely arrogant, but he’s a likeable rogue. Essentially, he’s a grown up kid with a LOT of money. One of the things he wants to do with it is to go to the moon — not for any noble purpose, really, but because he’s always wanted to be an astronaut, and he thinks money can be made in space.

One scene that resonated with me was a not too subtle slap at traditional publishers. In it, Jerry, after leaving NASA and realizing he needs an income, briefly takes a job with a small publisher in Wisconsin. He is given a manuscript, for which he holds no high hopes, and unexpectedly finds that it is fantastic. One of the best things he’s ever read. He tells his new employers, and they tell him to write a nice rejection letter. Why? Because, they explain, they are not in business to publish what’s good. They’re in business to publish what sells. This got a smile from me because I’ve concluded much the same thing, and it’s why more and more of my reading list is comprised of ‘indie’ published books now. That’s all beside the point, I suppose, but I wanted to mention it, and since I’m writing this, I can.

A minor point of annoyance came when Jerry, needing some analysis done, turns to someone at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Why didn’t he contact the Florida Institute of Technology instead? It’s physically closer and probably has stronger ties to NASA than UCF does. This probably would not bother someone outside the area, but it struck me as not making sense. Like I said, just a minor point.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that in the course of the novel, clues are uncovered and the mystery is explained. I found it a bit contrived, and I think a better explanation consistent with all the clues up to this point was possible. When I reached the end, I wondered if the brief scene about Jerry’s experience working for a publisher was a clue about why this particular ending was chosen. I have no evidence of that, of course. It’s just idle speculation.

You may want to stop reading now because the next bit is a sort of spoiler, but I’ll try to keep it vague. At the end, those who can, choose not to reveal the full truth to the world. Instead, they decide to perpetuate a deception originally contrived by the Nixon administration to manipulate the Soviets (although I could not see how this would have worked on them). The deception provides a depressing and cautionary message that seems designed to preserve the status quo. The true account seemed far more hopeful and could encourage human cooperation and progress. After the last sentence, I couldn’t help wondering why they all agreed to perpetuate the lie.

Up until the last chapter, this is an interesting mystery full of secrets and conspiracy. The characters are likeable, the dialogue is believable, and the prose is suitable for the genre. Pulp sci-fi fans who also enjoy a good conspiracy novel may want to pick this up, but if you are looking for something like McDevitt’s highly enjoyable Alex Benedict novels, this isn’t one.

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Mars Life and the Nature of Science

On 20 November 2012, NPR broke a story that NASA was in the process of discovering something ‘earthshaking’ on Mars. John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, was quoted as saying, “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” (See the NPR broadcast here: Big News From Mars?)

The data he is talking about comes from the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instruments incorporated into the Curiosity rover. The purpose of these is to ‘investigate the past and present ability of Mars to support life.’

Because of this, my guess is that the earthshaking discovery is the existence of organic compounds that are strongly indicative of past life or, perhaps, even evidence of present microbial life on Mars. It could be something else, of course. I’m only guessing, but it’s my blog, so I can guess what I want to.

This is a significant difference between the busy folks at NASA and my humble self, a simple science fiction novelist. I can make a wild guess about something like this and share it with the world, or at least with the miniscule portion of it that reads what I write. The people at NASA are more constrained. What they do is science, real science, which means they have to question and test their conjectures before they proclaim them. They also have to try to prove that their assumptions, their expectations, the things they think are reasonable, and especially those things they wish to believe, are not true, or at least not conclusively demonstrated. They have to be careful not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, especially if those conclusions are what they hope to find because this is where we are most likely to deceive ourselves. That’s what real science does. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence.” Life on Mars would certainly qualify as extraordinary in my opinion, not in the sense that it is unlikely, but in the sense that it would be the first evidence of life somewhere other than Earth. The chemicals required for life are common in the universe, so the surprising thing to me would be if it did not exist elsewhere. We’ve never found any, though, but then we’ve only just developed the ability to search for it.

Undoubtedly, many dedicated men and women around the world will be spending long hours collecting and analyzing the SAM data, trying to determine what it implies, and trying verify and, at the same time, discredit their own conclusions. This is how science does things. It’s meticulous and inherently skeptical, and it is the best method available to us to know the universe.

I understand that NASA’s conclusions about this earthshaking finding will be released in December. I look forward to seeing them.

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