(2020) Laura Lam, Wildfire, £18.99, hrdbk, 347pp, ISBN 978-1-472-26764-1
On paper this book sounded quite promising. Five women steal a spaceship and head off to a new planet, leaving behind a dying Earth. Itís got some topical ingredients too Ė a global pandemic, a climate catastrophe, an ultra right wing misogynist US Government Ė and some intriguing character dynamics: a maverick scientist and her astronaut step-daughter, boyfriend inconveniently back on Earth in the ultimate long distance relationship, ex-husband in stasis on the ship as backup crew. Plus itís an easy read.
Plot first: set in the near future, Earthís climate catastrophe is gathering pace and the planet is rapidly becoming inhospitable; optimistic estimates suggest 30 years at most before total collapse. But there is hope: a new planet ten light years out called Cavendish, accessible though newly invented Ďwarpí technology. A mission is planned, a five man (literally) experimental starship called Atalanta, assembled in orbit. Men only, because US society at this point has become increasingly male dominated and women have been shunted to subservient supportive roles. Not quite Handmaid's Tale (despite what the dust jacket might suggest) but enough to create a sense of injustice. So five women, headed up by the indomitable Valerie Black steal the Atalanta before the real crew can get there and head off themselves to Mars, the staging point to Cavendish.
On the way to Mars, things start to fall apart. People back on Earth are angry and here is talk of another spaceship to follow the Atalanta and bring the women to justice. The food supply on the ship gets compromised. The power starts draining. And Valerie Black becomes increasingly isolated and demanding. Crew tensions rise as they begin to make surprising discoveries about their mission Ė and their cargo.
Itís implied in the prologue that the crew never makes it to Cavendish, which takes some of the heat out of the plot. Plus the narrative is peppered with a series of chronologically disconnected flashbacks which makes it all feel like a tale told rather than an adventure experienced. And some plotlines Iíd really like to have seen developed (like why US society sidelined women and why the five felt they had to steal a spaceship) are glossed over whereas others (like the narrative lead, Naomi, having an unexpected pregnancy in space) are given prominence. And donít get me started on the frozen ex-husband wasted plot line Ė so much unexplored potential.
Valerie Black, the antagonist, is writ large with no redeeming qualities and a ruthless zealotry. I like her, but itís hard to see what drives her, or why people should (initially) follow her so blindly or why a clearly capable and accomplished woman like her should so misread human dynamics in the way she ultimately does.
The logic for abandoning the mission and returning to Earth isnít entirely apparent, but is wrapped around the pandemic raging on Earth. Had I read this book six months ago I might not have noticed that the science behind the way this pandemic is described is, well, questionable. Weíre all pandemic experts (cf. SARS-CoV-2) now of course, so we all know about death rates of everything from ebola to flu, transmission vectors and the inevitable delays in getting a vaccine out into the general population. So there may be a case for a post-CoVID-19 re-edit here.
For me, the biggest disappointment is that this novel teases a new world (Cavendish) and the whole book is structured around the Atalanta getting there, only for the crew to decide to turn back at the last minute. Itís like Christmas is cancelled at ten to midnight on Christmas Eve. The crew donít even seem disappointed, which makes you wonder why they wanted to go on the mission in the first place (not that was ever clear). That said, it wasnít hard to keep the pages turning in this book and just because I found some of the narrative choices unsatisfying others might take a different view. Goldilocks didnít work for me, but donít let that put you off.
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