1999, BBC Radio 4

Written by Stephen Baxter

Produced, adapted and directed by Dirk Maggs

Over the years the BBC has broadcast several radio adaptations of SF stories, some more successful than others. The most successful, Douglas Adams' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was not actually an adaptation, and was also radio-comedy, which gives it a head start.

Of the more serious stuff, at least four of John Wyndham's novels have been done -- the most recent being Chocky. Of serialisations, Earthsearch by James Follett was broadcast in the eighties, with a follow-up series about a year later. Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" are more recent adaptations of classic SF.

Science fiction on the radio has a long tradition behind it -- one of the first adaptations being Orson Welles' famously panic-inducing 1938 US version of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. For SF producers, radio has a unique attraction: no need to spend a fortune on special effects. With just voices and sounds you can create a whole universe.

So the demands on Dirk Maggs when he directed his adaptation of Stephen Baxter's alternate history novel Voyage, about a manned mission to Mars, were, in comparison to what's gone before, fairly modest. Baxter's jumping-off point is that John F. Kennedy survives the bullets in Dallas and goes on to witness the Apollo moon- landings and to challenge NASA to go to Mars.

The story follows several characters, but mostly concentrates on Natalie York, a geologist (played by Laurel Lefkow) who has a fascination for Mars, and who eventually joins the astronaut program. The radio version of Voyage is faithful to the book, but inevitably omits a lot of detail, and one or two narrative threads are missing altogether. But that's to be expected in an adaptation that compresses over 500 pages of novel into two and a half hours of audio. Baxter's book is heavy on detail and the technical aspects of space-flight, and though in the novel this adds greatly to the realism, on radio there simply isn't time to explore the technical nuances to such a degree.

A disadvantage for radio listeners who haven't read the book is that a realistic depiction of such a mission involves an awful lot of people. In the book you have time to get to know the characters. In the audio version you plunge in straight away. For those hearing the audio version first, a potential point of confusion comes in the first half-hour episode, with the Apollo 11 moonwalkers and Nixon's phone call to them on the lunar surface. The man who has followed Neil Armstrong's one small step is not Buzz Aldrin but an astronaut named Joe Muldoon. This is one of Baxter's alternative consequences, and though it's never explained, once you accept it as part of the new history everything falls into place. Muldoon becomes a major player later in the story.

An important thread in Voyage, and one that drives the big picture as well as York's part in it, is the early adoption of the NERVA rocket to power the Mars mission. This is a nuclear-powered booster that is hailed as the new technology -- the only way that men will get to Mars. The third of the five half-hour episodes of Voyage is entirely devoted to the NERVA test flight. It's a gripping, tension-filled spectacular, the centre-piece of the whole production. Here is what radio drama does best, pulling you effortlessly into the action. This episode should be played with the volume turned up. (Or on headphones.)

Those who have read the book, and who are wondering whether to try the audio version, might like to note that Maggs has done away with Baxter's parallel narrative threads. This is probably for two reasons: to make the story easier to follow, and to increase the tension. It's a successful adaptation, and I recommended it.

Note: this review is based on the radio broadcasts. The audio book of Voyage is available on cassette as part of the BBC Radio Collection, 8.99 from:

Copyright 1999 Paul S. Jenkins

Note: This review originally appeared in the Usenet Newsgroup

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