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Mysteries on the moon The Cassandra Project'

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Sci-fi novel offers space race conspiracies

What if we went to the moon before we went to the moon? That is, what if Neil Armstrong wasn't the first?

That's the central conceit of 'The Cassandra Project' (ACE, $25.95), a team-up offering from science fiction mainstays Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick.

The year is 2019. Jerry Culpepper is the main spokesperson for a rapidly deteriorating NASA; the government has been increasingly less interested in funding the sort of blue sky science that the Agency does. The Space Age has lost its luster - the shuttle program is shut down, orbiting space stations are considered boring and the logistics of a manned Mars mission remain inscrutable.

However, a mysterious audio recording from one of the previous Apollo missions released on the 50th anniversary of Armstrong's first landing raises some serious questions about the true history of the space race. Jerry finds himself swept along on a wave of conspiracy, striving desperately to find out why and how such a secret could have been kept for so long.

Billionaire tycoon Bucky Blackstone is at the forefront of privatized space exploration; he has devoted his vast resources toward a self-financed return trip to the moon. When word of this seeming impossibility that an astronaut named Sydney Myshko may have been the first man on the moon, six months before Armstrong it only redoubles his desire to see for himself.

Culpepper and Blackstone soon find themselves working to solve one of the greatest conspiracies of the 21st century. Was Myshko first on the moon? Why did the government keep it a secret? How did they keep such a secret for half a century? What mysteries await our discovery or rediscovery?

Near-future sci-fi is tricky business; the whole point is to create a world that is just a touch different than our own. By setting their story less than a decade in the future, McDevitt and Resnick have to walk a fine line. In truth, their 2019 isn't all that different than our 2012 the names may be different, but their world is populated by the same sorts of people that live in ours.

'The Cassandra Project' isn't hard science-fiction, concerning itself with the particulars of massive technological advancement or interstellar warfare or anything like that. It is a simple 'what if?' story - simple, but powerfully effective.

The story unfolds much like a mystery novel in fact, it would not be unfair to call this a detective story with science-fictional themes as Culpepper and Blackstone each use all of the resources at their respective disposals in an attempt to answer two simple questions: Was Sydney Myshko the first man to walk on the moon? And if so, why was it kept a secret?

I desperately wanted to know the answers to those two questions. 'The Cassandra Project' isn't flashy; the writing style is generally workmanlike, while most of the characters aside from Jerry Culpepper and Bucky Blackstone tend to be rather broadly-drawn archetypes. And Culpepper and Blackstone aren't even rendered particularly deeply.

But I needed to know what happened. And really, when it comes to story, there are few higher praises that can be sung. McDevitt and Resnick had me hooked. I was barely 10 pages in when I knew that I was in it for the long haul. Their simple little possibility sank its claws into me and refused to let me go until the very end.

An end, I might add, with a more than satisfactory payoff and an unexpected one at that.

'The Cassandra Project' is good sci-fi, sure, but it is also the sort of book that any fan of mysteries, conspiracies and cover-ups will be drawn into. Great literature? Not at all. A great read? Absolutely.

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