“Frozen Orbit,” by Patrick Chiles, Baen Books, 2020, 336 pages, $16
The United States is sending a manned space expedition to Pluto. Not to put the first humans on Pluto but because they’re not the first humans to reach Pluto.
“Frozen Orbit,” a science fiction novel by Patrick Chiles, starts with this. The time is the very near future. Magellan, with a four-astronaut crew, is heading to the outer planets.
Magellan, a reusable nuclear-powered spacecraft, was originally to be sent to Jupiter on its first mission. Other outer planets were to be visited on subsequent flights. Then NASA officials learned the Soviet Union secretly sent a three-man expedition to Pluto in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
The Soviets launched it secretly because their Arkangel spacecraft was powered by nuclear bombs and could trigger a nuclear war. It was kept secret because something the cosmonauts discovered proved so dangerous the Russians destroyed the return capsule as it approached Earth landing years later, long after the crew’s death.
Magellan’s mission is to find out what that discovery was.
As with his previous novel “Farside,” Chiles builds a story blending a plausible but unlikely scenario, hard science fiction and an entertaining and gripping plot. Could the Soviets have secretly launched a manned mission to Pluto? The technology of the Arkangel mission is rooted in 1960s technology, and the 1980s Soviets were paranoid and grandiose enough to attempt Chiles’ scenario.
Chiles nails the atmosphere of a NASA-run human spaceflight mission in the 21st century, the jargon of the mission controllers and astronauts, and the bureaucratic infighting characterizing today’s NASA.
He packages everything in an entertaining story, one that compels readers to keep reading to learn what comes next. The scenario and background don’t overwhelm the story. Rather they are the scaffolding on which a gripping tale is formed.
Readers experience the wonder the astronauts feel on a remarkable voyage, groan as the Earth goes crazy as the expedition progresses, and thrill to a powerful conclusion.
“Frozen Orbit” is science fiction at its best — a novel that could have fit its 1950s and 1960s silver age, updated to the current century.