Sunday, February 19, 2017

Book Review: "The Wanderers" by Meg Howrey

Aerospace behemoth Prime Space, which has made its presence known in NASA's waning years, has a plan to put the first humans on Mars in four years. The company has selected the perfect crew for this mission—Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov, and Yoshihiro Tanaka—each of them leaders in their own country's space program who have participated on the International Space Station. The three are chosen for their complementary skills, personalities, and backgrounds, which should mesh perfectly during their mission.

Given the risky nature of their mission, the three will spend 17 months in the Utah wilderness in an amazingly realistic simulation of every aspect of the mission, from launch to the return home. Prime Space's Mission Control will throw everything they can at the crew, from equipment malfunctions, atmospheric anomalies, personal crises, even imminent failure, to observe their actions and reactions in order to determine what things will need to be tweaked when the actual mission rolls around.

Beyond the mechanics of their journey into space, Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi are observed by Prime Space's team of "obbers" around the clock, who monitor not only their physical reactions to situations they are thrown into, but their psychological, emotional, and interpersonal relationships and interactions as well, even how they react to the messages they receive from their own family and friends. And the "obbers" aren't just watching them, they're also watching those closest to them—Helen's daughter, Sergei's sons, and Yoshi's wife—each of whom has their own challenges, both related and unrelated to their family members' imminent journey to Mars.

To spend this much time in close proximity with each other and know that you are being watched around the clock is challenging, yet the three are determined to present the most stable personas to those watching, those who could make the decision to bounce them from the real mission. Yet as the simulated mission proceeds, each faces their own doubts, fears, and regrets, and even struggle with the concept of what is truly real and what is being simulated to test them. Meanwhile, their family members are dealing with their own epiphanies, and how they feel about the absence of their loved ones.

For a book under 400 pages, at times The Wanderers has an almost sweeping, epic feel, as it covers weighty topics such as travel to other planets, the issue of personal legacy, and how astronauts are forced to cope with the double-edged sword of wanting to be there for their families yet constantly wanting to push the boundaries of exploration. But at other times it feels very intimate, as the astronauts deal with their personal feelings of fear, paranoia, regret, loss, and confusion.

There's a lot going on in this book—sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. The book shifts perspective among the crew members, as well as Helen's daughter, Yoshi's wife, and one of Sergei's sons, and a member of the "obbers." I honestly think the book could have been equally as powerful without the family members' perspectives, because apart from one instance, the stories never really got closure. At times the book gets weighted down with technical speak, but luckily that doesn't last long, because the power of this novel truly comes from each of the astronauts, their self-discovery, and their interactions with one another.

I've been a fan of Meg Howrey since her very first novel, Blind Sight (see my review), and you can tell she did a tremendous amount of research to make this book feel authentic. But what I loved most were her storytelling, the complexity of her characters, and the imagery she uses. I thought the pacing of the book was a bit slow, but at its heart the story was very compelling. (By the way, this book is being marketed as Station Eleven meets The Martian, to which I'll reply, nope.)

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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