Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I recently finished reading Titan. Set in the present day, Titan is a novel about a NASA mission from Earth to Titan, one of the moons of Saturn.

At the risk of sounding snobbish, the novel isn't written particularly well. The dialogue is silly at times, the descriptions are vague and the plot is, at best, mildly preposterous most of the time.

Having said that, I admit that I was intrigued by some of the underlying themes. One of the ways Mr. Baxter succeeds is by poking at some fundamental questions about humanity and our desire for survival as a species.

Early on in the book, a bit character scolds one of the protagonists for wanting to travel to Titan so desperately:
I understand you, Rosenberg. Better than you think I do...Titan is always going to be out there. What's the rush? want to discover it all, before you can't bear the thought of the universe going on without you, its events unfolding without your invaluable brain still being around to process them.
What a fascinating assessment of human arrogance. Or American arrogance. Since it's logical to assume that none of us will go on living forever, it should be equally logical to conclude that any contribution a single human makes is merely one part of a greater effort. If I'm honest with myself, I can relate to Rosenberg. Realizing that one's life is a minor blip in history is a necessary and sometimes disturbing destination.

I can't help but make a jump from that realization to thoughts about my own mortality. Death is unavoidable. Perhaps that fact isn't as bothersome as it should be because my own death is likely still many decades away. Nevertheless, the knowledge that one day I'll fade to black weighs heavily sometimes. It's no wonder that so many seek religious solutions to the brutal certainty of the problem of death.

Likewise, the human race seems similarly doomed to destruction. Whether from some catastrophic natural disaster or our own stupidity, humans are likely to be snuffed out of existence as well. What a macabre thought. What are the implications? Should this truth lead us to God? Away from God? I don't know. It's comforting, though, to recognize that I'm not the first one to ask these questions, and I definitely won't be the last.

The characters in Titan ask the same questions, and they conclude that humans have a moral obligation to survive. They find peace in that conclusion. I wonder if that fictional peace comes from an objective, absolute truth or merely the generic satisfaction that comes from knowing what your purpose is.

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