In Williscroft’s (Operation Ivy Bells, 2014, etc.) latest novel, a journey into space arrives at the crossroads of extraterrestrial life and jihad.
Aboard the Cassini II spacecraft, U.S. Navy Capt. Jon Stock and his crew embark on a historic voyage to Saturn’s moon Iapetus, which may be an artifact. At the helm of a multicultural team of engineers, communications officers, and one Barbarella-esque second officer (“by any measure,” writes the author, Ginger Steele “was a beauty”), Stock and company travel 1.5 billion kilometers from Earth. Complicating matters, a stowaway named Saeed Esmail, a fanatical Shia, is bent upon preventing the Cassini II from reaching its destination by any means necessary. Acting on behalf of Caliph Ayatollah Khomeini’s proclamation that the voyage to Iapetus poses a threat to Allah as “master of Heaven and Earth,” Esmail’s mission is swiftly derailed after he’s poisoned by radiation. Now he’s in the care of medical officer Carmen Bhuta, and Stock must decide what to do with him, knowing full well that Esmail’s death could cause the caliphate “to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, or even Europe, Asia, or the U.S.” The story’s parallel between Esmail and Stock is suspenseful and intelligent. It’s preoccupied by the clash, rather than peaceful alliance, of civilizations, and the contrast between Islamic fundamentalism and American pluck is unmistakable. For example, Saeed is introduced lying prostrate, his face toward Mecca “nearly 400 million kilometers back in the direction of the Sun,” as he vomits blood on his prayer mat and wonders why Allah has abandoned him. Jon, meanwhile, is described as a steely-eyed pragmatist with “a craggy, clean shaven face that testified to his fifty years.” The author also shows how the difficulty of space travel and a revelation about Iapetus overwhelms Esmail; Stock, on the other hand, is “cool and collected—unaffected” by any challenges that come his way.
A skillful example of hard sci-fi that boldly considers outer-space life and an Islamic state.