Jack McDevitt wrote a story for Lightspeed Magazine in 2010 titled ‘The Cassandra Project’. It features the same protagonist and concept as his new novel with Mike Resnick by the same title. The short, told in the first person as opposed to the third person used in the novel, would not be recommended reading prior to The Cassandra Project novel. It’s essentially a 5,000 word spoiler. Nevertheless, I think it informs the review.
Based on my experience, it seems McDevitt and Resnick might be analogized as the science fiction equivalent of Lays Potato Chips whose famous slogan reads, “betcha can’t eat just one.” Both have strong followings who turn out time and again to buy their novels, many of which seem to have similar premises and styles. Having not read either at novel length, Cassandra Project was, I suppose, my test ground to see whether the analogy holds up.
The novel focuses almost entirely on public relations expert Jerry Culpepper. He’s been a political gun for hire most of his career, but since signing up to be NASA’s Public Affairs Director, he’s found a passion he never knew he had. Proud of the agency’s past, but dissatisfied that its history may be all it has left, Jerry does his best to drum up interest in what remains of the ‘mission’. Luckily for him, an Apollo veteran dies and new never before seen facts come to light. NASA and Jerry are quickly thrown into what might be the biggest story of the twenty-first century — one that will rewrite history itself.
Based in a world almost identical to the one lived in today, there’s no learning curve that’s often associated with science fiction. Instead, Resnick and McDevitt focus on NASA’s ever declining budgets to ask the question, what would it take to reverse it? The answer, they posit, is nothing short of justifiable proof that there’s something out there worth finding. But, how does proof come to light without any resources to find it?
Cassandra Project answers that question with private enterprise in the form of an eccentric billionaire who’s equal parts Richard Branson and Donald Trump. In so doing, it becomes a novel that can be read, at least in part, as a criticism of the U.S. government’s declining tolerance for funding space exploration. It’s also a call to action among private enterprise to pick up the slack. These moments can be all but ignored, sparse as they are, in favor of the cat and mouse game surrounding the Apollo moon missions. And that’s really what the novel’s about. It’s a classic secret history — a what if novel.
Capturing the imagination much like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Cassandra Project relies heavily on the reader’s investment in the historical record. For those with little interest in the space program, I worry the novel may lack verve. That said, it’s absolutely what kept me reading; not the narrative itself, or the characters, but the desire to discover the created history of the Apollo program, Watergate, Richard Nixon’s death, and how they intertwined.
The downside then is that Cassanda Project isn’t special. Written without any unique styling , it isn’t populated with mind blowing ideas and iconic characters either. It’s a memorable concept, but as a novel it’s going to be quickly forgotten. I found it a worthy distraction from the annoying drone of the engines and discipline lacking third grader behind me as I flew across the country, but beyond that there’s little to praise. I would guess it isn’t a quintessential example of either authors’ work though. It feels like a novel written because it was easy to do so, buouyed by the name recognition of two well regarded writers.
That sounds like condemnation, but it’s also a back handed compliment. Resnick and McDevitt have an incredible affinity for pace and structure. It’s no surprise that both have legions of fan who’ve read their entire catalog given the competent novel they wrung out of an idea better suited to a short story. With that in mind, should I be recommending McDevitt’s two year old story over the cost of the novel? It’s food for thought. Lays Potato Chip anyone?