Fiction Reviews

The Flight of the Aphrodite

(2022) S. J. Morden, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 323pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22858-04


The Aphrodite is a crewed mission to explore the moons of Jupiter. It is the late twenty-first century and while there is a fair bit of space traffic in the Earth-Lunar system, this is the first crewed mission to Jupiter and it may even be the last. Back on Earth, the ravages of climate change and environmental resource issues make the prospect of future, expensive deep space missions unlikely. This makes it all the more important that the Aphrodite's explorations are succesful.

However, all is not well. The ship is barely coping as are the crew: there are mental health issues including psychosis. At this point, the crew make an unexpected discovery. A regular, periodic radio transmission between two of Jupiter's moons. Someone, or something, else is out with them in Jovian space…

The Flight of the Aphrodite is a rather good mundane SF space opera with the proviso that – unlike the Aphrodite's crew – your head is in the right place from the off. The above teaser, and the book's back cover blurb, might lead you to think that this may possibly be a first-contact novel: it is not. What we have is an exploration of a slowly degrading ship and crew, pressured by the need to succeed and the added burden of an inexplicable, unexpected discovery. The prospect of some Clarke-like encounter as actually more of a MacGuffin.

Having said that, The Flight of the Aphrodite does somewhat chime with other SF classics. Early on there is a Stanislaw Lem Solaris (1961) moment with a crew member seeing people they knew back on Earth, but this surreal event – it is soon revealed – has a perfectly logical explanation and is a portent of things to come.

The back-cover, with a quote from The Times book review, likens Morden's previous novel Gallowglass to the 'gripping cinematic visions' of The Martian and Ad Astra. The quote is obviously there because it hails from The Times but is actually most unhelpful other than to flaunt The Times reviewer's ignorance of cinematic SF: The Martian is SF excellence (IMDB 8.0 / Rotten Tomatoes audience 91% ), whereas Ad Astra, as any vaguely knowledgeable SF buff is aware, is truly dire (IMDB 6.5 / Rotten Tomatoes audience 40% ). Be assured, The Flight of the Aphrodite is miles better than Ad Astra: ignore the back-cover quote.

At the end of the day, the unravelling of the Aphrodite and its crew, mirrors that of the decay of civilisation on Earth due to environmental collapse. This last happens off stage and referenced only through a couple of messages from Earth and the thoughts of the crew as to what sort of planet they will find on their return? The Flight of the Aphrodite exemplifies that, when things begin to go wrong, space exploration is not glamorous and space itself is unforgiving. All in all, it is the perfect setting for drama.

Jonathan Cowie


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