Have you noticed that movie trailers today tend to summarize the core of a movie, including the ending? More and more, Hollywood seems to have decided to reveal the best parts of the story ahead of time, taking away any possibility for surprise when you watch the whole thing. Unfortunately, reading The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick was like seeing a movie after watching today’s trailers. As an expansion of McDevitt’s short story of the same name, published in 2011, there just isn’t enough new material to maintain intrigue for the reader. Further, a significant shift in plotting causes irreparable harm to a story that presents itself initially as largely character-driven.
Though this is the first Resnick novel I’ve read, I want to make a point of saying that I am a huge McDevitt fan, and have been since I started reading the Alex Benedict series. One of the aspects of the Benedict series that I love is the investigative nature of each story, like Indiana Jones crossed with a police procedural, set thousands of years in the future. This quality is replicated in Project, in the way that the principle characters attempt to determine if and why the American government landed on the Moon earlier than Apollo XI, and why they covered it up. In true McDevitt flare, pieces of the answer are slowly, painstakingly collected over the course of the novel – only whereas the Benedict series follows a single quest, this novel puts three separate parties on the search, each finding different clues and only sharing them near the end.
One of these parties, at least initially, is Jerry Culpepper, public relations director for NASA as it struggles to survive in 2019. Jerry is an excellently round character at the outset of the novel; though his position in public relations has him working with the media and spinning stories in NASA’s favor, he’s an honorable man who is uncomfortable lying, especially when it concerns something he believes people have a right to know. Though his superiors warn him not to investigate the previous Moon landings, Jerry cannot resist searching for the truth; his discovery that he and the rest of the world have been lied to is a great moment for the development of his character, as he must choose between his loyalty to NASA and his core values.
Unfortunately, this is the point where Jerry’s development comes to an end. His moment of crisis leads him to resign from NASA and join the team at Blackstone Enterprises, owned by Morgan “Bucky” Blackstone, the second party investigating the cover-up. Though it initially seems as though Jerry is going to continue investigating – which would make sense, since the first half of the novel focuses largely on him – McDevitt and Resnick instead place Jerry in the role of public relations for Blackstone’s upcoming Moon launch, the first such private endeavor in human history. Jerry suddenly withdraws to the back of the narrative; his thoughts on Blackstone’s mission are voiced almost entirely through dialogue, as Blackstone’s point-of-view dominates. He stops investigating until the very end and his development stagnates as he leaves other characters to do the hard work. As a result, the resolution of his rift with NASA is far too cut-and-dry, and not explored in any depth – a serious injustice to such a well-rounded character. Worse, this narrative shift breaks a contract with the reader, in that there is an unfulfilled expectation that Jerry’s character arc will be completed. Breaking this contract loses the reader’s trust in the rest of the story, and it is a surprising error for McDevitt and Resnick to make.
With Jerry withdrawn, the focus shifts to Blackstone and George Cunningham, President of the United States and the third party investigating the cover-up. Blackstone is a significant presence for the entire novel, so the ongoing focus on his investigation makes perfect sense. He’s also a strong character overall; though at times he seems to be a typical, devil-may-care billionaire flaunting his power to governments and media alike, there is enough uniqueness in his character to counteract this – his belief in doing things for the good of humanity, for example. President Cunningham, meanwhile, is another matter. Though his determination to be as honest as possible with the American people and make decisions that are right for the world is compelling, his character’s sudden thrust to the forefront of the story seems unnatural. His role in the novel’s resolution is integral, but this resolution could have been accomplished without having Cunningham take over for Jerry.
Despite this, my primary issue with Project is the fact that I knew the ending long before I got there, specifically because I had read McDevitt’s short story of the same name, published in The Year’s Best Science Fiction 16. That story is essentially the core of McDevitt and Resnick’s novel, with a lot of extra story elements removed. “The Cassandra Project” focuses on Jerry’s investigation from within the confines of NASA, and actually portrays this investigation more effectively than the novel; it is much more succinct, for one thing, and moves the investigation more quickly. As I read, I kept hoping the novel would deviate, or that the short story’s climactic reveal would occur quickly and the novel would move further. Instead, the more I read the more I became convinced that the novel’s ending would give me nothing new, and the more disenchanted I became.
At this point, if you haven’t read Project yet and don’t want the ending spoiled, skip to the last paragraph.
This disenchantment meant that when I reached the conclusion, and a new twist was revealed, I wasn’t particularly impressed. The original cover-up McDevitt employs in his short story is that an alien civilization left a warning about the dangers of technological advancement: specifically war, self-destruction, or stagnation once immortality is achieved. In my opinion, this is an excellent thought to incorporate at the end of a story debating continued funding for interstellar exploration, arguably a necessary step in terms of our technological progress. The Cassandra Project reveals that this warning is a fabrication meant to hide a different message, which describes the murder of an extraterrestrial emissary just over two thousand years ago: a subtle-as-a-sledgehammer hint that Jesus Christ was from another world.
While the double-cover-up concept is interesting, the idea of Jesus/God as extraterrestrial has been explored before, famously by Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood’s End, but also by H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. More importantly, this idea isn’t explored in any depth by McDevitt and Resnick; the truth is revealed, swept under the rug, and the novel ends. There is only a limited discussion of the possible effects on humanity of learning the truth, and there is no exploration of how our society is affected when the false warning is provided to them. This lack of exploration is especially noticeable because the novel makes significant mention of the global issues the United States is dealing with, such as overpopulation, climate change, and limited resources. The question of how we would react to a warning about technological advancement is very compelling, and yet McDevitt and Resnick choose not to develop it, similar to how they choose not to develop Jerry.
In my opinion, this altered ending actually makes The Cassandra Project weaker than the short story that preceded it. McDevitt’s short story is succinct and intriguing, and leaves the reader with something to ponder, whereas this novel seems to have been expanded for the sake of expansion, and loses some of its final intrigue as a result. In addition, the sudden shift in perspective away from Jerry Culpepper is too blatant to ignore. My advice to readers is to pick up a copy of The Year’s Best Science Fiction 16, flip to page 318, and leave the novel alone.
Brandon Crilly is a high school History teacher living in Ottawa, Canada. His speculative fiction has appeared (or will shortly appear) in On Spec and Encounters, as well as That Not Forgotten (Hidden Brook Press). For more information about his published work, please visit brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @B_Crilly