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Europa's Lost Expedition (SF) - Michael Carroll ***

I've now read a good few in this Springer series of titles that attempt to bring science fiction and science fact together. Some are straight non-fiction, but many, like this one, are science fiction with a  'science bit' at the end - and of those, this is one of the best I've come across.

I thought I was having deja vu to start with, as one of the first in the series I read involved an ill-fated expedition to Saturn's moon Titan, while this involves... an ill-fated expedition to Jupiter's moon Europa. (At the time I didn't realise that On the Shore of Titan's Farthest Sea was even written by the same author.) Although the struggles of existence on a remote, cold moon were a bit samey, luckily the plot was sufficiently different to mean that this wasn't the end of the world.

The reason I say this is one of the best in the series is that there is some depth to the plotting. Mysterious deaths occur on the expedition. We have a flashback to an earlier expedition that went horribly wrong. Many of the characters seem to have a dubious past in the world war that devastated Earth a few years previously. It has got far more going for it than just a 'humans versus the landscape' story. I genuinely did want to read on and find out what was going to happen, and exactly what was the meaning of these hints from the past. We had a murder mystery and more to contend with as well as the boilerplate science fiction plot.

However, things weren't all rosy. The book was very slow to start, with a lot of exposition on the ship on the way to Europa. It didn't help the reader in getting a head around the various characters present on the journey that quite a few had surnames as first names, so even remembering what sex they were was a struggle to start with. (One (female) character's first name is Hadley - I couldn't help but wonder if it was a coincidence that the name turned up on one page adjacent to the words 'convection cell.') I said in the review of Michael Carroll's earlier book that his characters were two dimensional - these are a little better, but they still all feel like they've been allocated a role - the perky one, the brooding one, the religious one and so forth - and Carroll certainly doesn't do enough to cover his big reveal, which seemed obvious fairly early on.

The thing that nagged at me most in the plotting was this was supposed to take place just a few years after a third world war that made the second seem like a skirmish - yet things had already got back on track enough to send a science expedition to Europa. That just didn't work for me - nor did the way everyone just kept on doing their jobs as equipment repeatedly failed and expedition members died. I'd also say it's unfortunate that a lot of the science stuff, laid on fairly heavily in the text as well as the science bit at the end, was geology based - the hardest of all topics to make interesting to the general reader.

A step forward, though, in this brave attempt of putting together a series that educates as it entertains (and the pricing isn't as eye-watering as it once was, though ebooks are still far too expensive). It doesn't compare with good modern science fiction, feeling very 50s at best, but it is readable and some of the science bits were enlightening and interesting.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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