The Russian manned expedition to Mars that set off in 2017 was about a year into its voyage when the craft was struck by a small meteoroid and all aboard died. Four years later, in 2022, a new expedition sets off -- two expeditions, really, one Russian and the other American, the two craft travelling together and their crews cooperating. The outward trip will take some two years, involving a slingshot around Venus and the deployment there of a robot surface probe.
Not everything goes precisely according to plan. Tensions mount in the Russian craft as its captain develops a major case of the hots for the sole female astronaut involved, who happens to be the wife of the pilot. One of the American team develops acute appendicitis; an emergency operation is performed by his colleagues, but soon after there is a solar flare and he succumbs to a combination of post-operative infection and radiation sickness.
And so on.
The distinction is rarely made between science fiction and fiction written about science for the entertainment of scientists. The reason the distinction is little made is obvious: there's such a huge overlap between the two only marginally different forms that there's hardly ever any point in making it. In such works as Gregory Benford's Timescape (1980), Paul Preuss's Broken Symmetries (1983) and Robert A. Metzger's Picoverse (2002), scientists can find scads of highly entertaining workings-out of ideas from the farther reaches of physical theory; but these novels are also rambunctiously enjoyable as sf.
A Step Beyond, by contrast, is determinedly realistic; paradoxical though it might seem to make this remark about a tale concerning a space expedition, A Step Beyond keeps its feet firmly on the ground. This realism is its great weakness as an sf novel, even at the same time as it is the book's great strength as a work of fiction for those interested in the technology of space exploration. Here you can see worked out very plausibly how things might go for humankind's first manned expedition to Mars, an event that will be exhilaratingly exciting when it happens. The trouble is that, as with virtually any groundbreaking human endeavour, the exciting bits will be possible only because of the 99% of it all that will be, um, well, sort of boring. As example, the first lunar landing was monumentally exciting to watch and vicariously be a part of; but only a few space-exploration junkies (of which I was one) could be bothered to sit through all the banal exchanges between the astronauts and Mission Control on the flights there and back.
In an sf novel we'd be given only the high points of the mission to Mars. In A Step Beyond we're given the whole lot. Paragraphs like this are everywhere:
Satomura is reporting results from the robot probe sent down to Venus, This is actually all pretty exciting stuff for a planetary scientist; but it's not so thrilling for an sf reader.
There are some identifiable flaws in A Step Beyond. In the first fifty pages or so there's a marked tendency for characters to tell each other at length things they already know:
Of course, all of the astronauts listening to Nelson know this -- there's absolutely no reason for him to tell it to them, and so all that's really going on is a clumsy infodump.
Despite such flaws, this is an admirable piece of work -- but for space scientists rather than for sf readers. As an sf novel it doesn't work -- there's none of that Sense of Wonder we've come to expect -- but as a plausible prediction of the future it is very fine indeed. But, like reality, it's a bit dull.
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© John Grant 11 May 2002