Fiction Reviews

The Last Astronaut

(2019) David Wellington, Orbit, 8.99, pbk, 364pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51229-7


This is a book called The Last Astronaut purportedly written by David Wellington in the future year of 2057.  It begins recounting the fateful events of 2034 Orion 6 mission to Mars.  En route to the Red Planet a fateful accident took place and the only reason all but one of the crew survived was due to its commander, Sally Jensen, sacrificing a fatally injured crew member.

That event not only haunted Sally, who faced controversy from some over her decision, but put paid to further NASA crewed missions. So by 2055 NASA really only was engaged in robotic probe missions as well as Earth orbit satellites.  There was though a private space sector that did do some limited crewed space transportation.

Flashback to 2017 and a strange, thin, cylindrical object passed through the Solar System, 1I/2017 U1 or 'Oumuamua' that also exhibited some odd behaviour, though could have been comet-like.  What's more it was decelerating and heading for Earth.  Silent to all radio broadcasts, it was now vital to send a mission to the object.  One private industry mission was set to go and NASA wanted to send one of its own.

NASA decided to us one of a couple of Orion modules it had mothballed, kitting out as necessary with spare parts from another.  Not having anyone physically able to command the mission, it decided to bring Sally Jensen back from retirement: she had had a post-NASA career that kept her fit. To accompany her was an astrobiologist, the astrophysicist that discovered the new incoming object, and a military space drone pilot: the military were concerned that the object might present a threat to Earth.  And, as Orion 7, off they went.

I have to say there were a couple of moments when the reader might cry out as one does when watching a horror film. You know the sort. A rural village sees killings at night. So when a couple hear a strange noise the husband says 'I'm just going out to see what it is,' and you shout out, 'Nooo, don't do it.'  Well there are at least two of those, but if the astronauts had not been do damn foolish the story would likely have ended.

This is a reasonably hard, largely mundane, SF story that you might expect from, say, Stephen Baxter in near-mundane mode.  It is also clearly influenced by recent offerings such as The Martian but with the science toned down: David Wellington does not seem to have a science background and, while there is some, this science comes from his researching for the book.

What the book really is, is an SF horror adventure that arguably takes (unintentionally or not) for its inspirational starting point Rendezvous With Rama (1973).  It is a decidedly good SFnal read and, had it been written towards the end of the 20th century, might even have been a standout novel.  However cutting-edge SF has since then moved on with, for example on the incoming spaceship front, notably the Hugo-winning Blindsight (2006).  Nonetheless, as said, this is a good SF read and there is an interesting (albeit possibly, arguably flawed) SF concept twist at its heart that will engage science fiction aficionados.  If only for this reason alone, this book deserves to be sought out by those into first contact stories.

Jonathan Cowie


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