The Wanderers (2017)
A few years ago, Andy Weir’s novel The Martian became a big success, first as a book (my review here), and then as a hit movie. Weir’s story reveled in the technical aspects of a Martian expedition: the main character has been left behind for dead on Mars after a catastrophic accident, and while his isolation inevitably plays a role, the story consists primarily of a series of challenges and accidents he must overcome to survive. Well-written and engaging for the general reader, the novel was a kind of geek nirvana for sci-fi loving engineers and scientists.
Meg Howrey’s new novel, The Wanderers, also centers on mankind reaching out toward the red planet. It takes a completely different tack than Weir’s story, however, with the science of the mission playing a subservient role to Howrey’s main theme, the psychological challenges of a Mars expedition for the astronauts as wells as the family members they leave behind.
There are the obvious difficulties, of course, including the long period in close quarters and an ever present fear of disaster. But Howrey explores too the complex mixture of feelings the astronauts can face, as guilt at leaving their families behind competes with an overwhelming desire to return again to the beauty and thrill of spaceflight. And family members, for their part, can come to measure themselves and their lives against the heroic view the public has of their space-traveling parent or spouse.
Set perhaps a few decades into our future, the story opens as the private company Prime Space Systems --- known simply as Prime --- prepares for an expedition to Mars. Prime selects three experienced astronauts for the mission, with the plan to have them first run through a hyper-realistic simulated mission, to be staged in the Utah desert and to last nearly as long as the subsequent actual trip itself. Through this simulated mission, Prime claims to want to learn about the psychological stresses the crew will face, and so be able to compensate for these issues on the real expedition.
The story consists of the run up to and execution of this simulated mission, and examines the impact on the astronauts, their immediate families, and even the support team at Mission Control, which is also expected to perform during the simulation as if it’s the real thing. Prime achieves a staggering level of verisimilitude for the simulation, covering both the mental and physical aspects of the astronauts’ environment and activities. On the one hand, this helps the astronauts maintain their focus on making the simulated mission as real as possible over the many months it lasts; ultimately, however, they find that the apparent reality of the experience begins to prey on their sub-conscious understanding of what is artificial and what real.
Howrey writes each chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters, including each of the three astronauts, of course, as well as one key family member for each of them, and one of the astronauts’ monitors at Mission Control. As she switches back and forth between characters in successive chapters, we end up seeing the same situations from multiple perspectives. These varying interpretations of events, without a single fixed reference point, leave us as readers in a situation not unlike that of the characters themselves --- uncertain of what to believe, and guessing at what the full truth may be.
The structure Howrey has chosen, coupled with the focus on the psychological aspects of the mission, result in a slow start for the story, as the characters’ backstories and idiosyncrasies are introduced and developed. A bit like a rocket lifting off, however, after the initial period when it seems like not much forward progress is being made, the plot gains momentum. Even then, the charm of The Wanderers lies not in action and adventure of space flight, but rather in the simmering tension of people thrown together into the unknown. Through this experience,Howrey explores the drama of inner space, of our hopes and fears, and how even our closest relationships present moments of both struggle and grace.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf