(2018) S. J. Morden, Gollancz, £13.99, trdpbk, 342pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22256-4
It is the near future and space exploration is has been part privatised. So when Xenosystems Operations (XO) wins the contract to automatically deploy a base on Mars for the planet's first permanent base for NASA, few outside XO gives much thought as to whether establishing the base could actually be delivered for the price XO quoted. It transpires that the automation is not up to spec but this does not faze XO senior execs as another part of their corporation also runs some of the US's prisons. Included in the inmate population are expert engineers, plumbers construction workers and the like. XO thinks that some of these might make for a cheap, possibly expendable, work force.
Frank Kitteridge has been imprisoned for murder. Specifically he got life , the killing of the drug-dealer who had been supplying his son. When XO comes calling with an offer he cannot refuse – serve out his sentence free on Mars in return for helping construct the base – he accepts. The problem is that his fellow construction workers are also convicted felons. So when more deaths occur than can be attributed to accidents in Mars hostile environment, they wonder whether they were genuine mishaps or is their an active killer among them?
The above in essence summarises both the back cover blurb – headed by 'Eight astronauts. One Killer. No way home' – as well as the publicity release, and actually that takes us to halfway through the book.
Consequently, readers will likely coast the novel's first half and many will likely anticipate the book's three alternate, broad possible plot concluding directions: Mars is a hostile place and there were genuine accidents that engendered paranoia hence more accidents and perhaps a genuine murder; one of the inmates really is psychopathically killing; or an agency other than the inmates is behind the deaths.
As the reader proceeds through the novel's second half, one of these options become increasingly likely; though the reader cannot be certain until near the end whether this is a blatant red herring or not.
Given that the back cover blurb informs the reader as to where the novel's principal substance lies in the book's first half, it is not until we reach Mars that matters start to become more intriguing. Though having said that, enough is going on in the mission-preparation phase, and in establishing the protagonist's team-mates (soon-to-be suspects) backgrounds to keep the reader engaged. The author, S. J. Morden, is qualified in geology and planetary geophysics and so there is a satisfying hint of Andy Weir's The Martian with some science beginning to shine through: though not nearly as concentrated as in the best-selling The Martian and, while Morden could arguably have tapped more into this particular vein, this does provide something of an added dimension to what is primarily a thriller.
The author has been a past Philip K. Dick Award winner (for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the US) in 2012, and a past member of the Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award judging panel (which means he is able to read a lot of SF in a few months). What we have here, with One Way, is a reasonably solid, mundane SF, who-is-doing-it thriller. It would probably make quite a good film.
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