Books: Thoughts on “Pioneer” + More about Apollo 8

I recently posted an item about the “new” sci-fi novel Pioneer by Robert Zimmerman. While Bob is best known as a space historian and journalist, he produced this work of fiction back in 1982 when he was just starting out on his writing career. He set it aside after he had trouble finding a publisher. He came across the transcript in his files this year and decided it was worth releasing.

I’m glad he made it available. I finally had a chance to read it (always way behind on my reading) and wanted to say I really enjoyed it. The plot was laid out previously so I’ll just point out some aspects of the story and Solar Sci-Fi scenario that I found particularly interesting.

One of the reasons Bob released Pioneer was because of its depiction of a solar system where commercial ventures are prevalent and settlements on Mars and the Moon are being established. This fits well with what we see today with entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin leading the way in innovations that are making access to space affordable and companies like OneWeb, Planet, and NanoRacks creating new space services and products.

However, the time frame of the book is not the early 21st Century but the late 22nd Century. Perhaps it was a symptom of those pessimistic years just a decade or so after the shutdown of Apollo that Bob could not see such ambitious space progress happening until a couple of centuries had passed. With Elon Musk planning Mars settlements and Jeff Bezo pushing for millions of people living and working in space, a grand expansion of life out into the solar system may happen sooner rather than later.

The technology depicted in the novel is also interesting. The spaceships in Pioneer have propulsion systems that can get the crews to distant parts of the solar system but not very quickly. Missions to the asteroids and outer planets take years to complete. This is a more realistic, down-to-earth scenario, so to speak, than warp drives sending ships to this or that star in days. It’s similar to what we see with deep space probes like Cassini, New Horizons, and Juno. However, it’s also a bit on the pessimistic side. Already there are credible fusion propulsion projects underway (e.g. see here and here) that offer major improvements over chemical propulsion. Perhaps in a coupe of decades, and certainly by the 22nd Century, most parts of the solar system should be accessible in months rather than years.

Bob has mentioned that he greatly under-estimated the rapid advances in micro-electronics and computers. I noticed in Pioneer there is also a lot of cable-handling for communications where today we would use wireless routers.

A writer of a “hard sci-fi” story must decide, though, what technologies will have “futuristic” capabilities and what will be similar to current tech. If everything is depicted as hyper-advanced, then the story may seem too magical, too untethered to reality for the reader to take seriously. It also becomes difficult to create a plot that has hurdles for the characters and their super-tech hardware to struggle against and overcome.

For example, if Bob’s characters had used a computer search tool that instantly returned answers extracted from humanity’s vast storehouse of knowledge, I expect many readers in 1982 would have scoffed. Today we take our browser search tools far too much for granted. They are really as wondrous as anything Merlin ever did in Camelot.

Ultimately, a novel in any genre needs interesting characters in a believable setting and a captivating plot. Pioneer has those things even if it doesn’t have Google.

One of Bob’s best known historical books is Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, which describes the first time humans left earth’s realm and orbited a distant celestial orb.

A reader points me to a new book on the same mission by Jeffery Kluger: Apollo 8:  The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon. Kluger talks in the following video about why Apollo 8 ranks with 11 and 13 as the key missions of the Apollo program:

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