About two centuries from now, the human race on Earth is in trouble, perhaps even facing extinction, because of the rapid evolution of diseases.
A crew of young men and women travel to the moons of Saturn, to Titan, to investigate the biochemistry of the pre-life conditions there in the slim hope of discovering something that might save Earth. Nearly half of the crew die on the way. They have to do most of their exploration in virtual-reality machinery. The whole story runs at high speed, as they race to find answers across the surface of an alien landscape with death close behind, and gaining.
In his first novel since 1987's Still River, SFWA Grand Master Clement imagines a time 75 years in the future when life on Earth, from plant to human, has fallen into an unstoppable decline and medical science cannot hold back a new wave of plagues. A group is sent to investigate primordial life on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, in hope that understanding how life begins will help humans forestall their extinction. The 50 crew members are all infected with the incurable diseases that are ravaging Earth, their number determined by a calculation of their half-life (the time it will take for half of them to die). They are "persuadees," trained in the disciplines of military action and scientific thought. Because of their fragile health, they mostly remain locked in their separate quarantined rooms and control their equipment via virtual reality hookups. One of the crew strategically kills himself--unable to continue suffering the pain of his illness and in order to provoke a crucial advance in the group's knowledge--which lends a different meaning to the term half-life. As they wait for each other to die, the crew members become absorbed in their work and emotionally distant from each other. This distance, and the lack of consistent character development, makes it difficult for the reader to feel sympathy for them. Though the action is abundant, much of it is relayed through flavorless dialogue that grows monotonous, ultimately impeding the narrative. A good start and intriguing background won't suffice to carry readers all the way through this disappointing novel by one of the SF greats. FYI: Clement, who's 77, published his first short story 57 years ago.