Title and Author: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Publication Date: March 14th, 2017
Genre: Science Fiction
How I got it: Thanks to Netgalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam for providing me an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Wanderers takes place in a very near future. Prime Space — sort of like Elon Musk’s SpaceX — chooses Helen (U.S.), Yoshi (Japan), and Sergei (Russia) to be the first astronauts on Mars. Prime Space believes these three engineers and space exploration veterans have the perfect personalities to pull off this long and potentially fraught trip.
But before the trio can go to Mars, they must undergo a 17-month simulation, a simulation that feels so real that as the months drag on and on, the astronauts — and the reader — begin to question whether it really is a simulation.
What makes The Wanderers different from other space exploration novels is that the entire novel occurs during the simulation. Prime Space needs to make sure that their chosen three can make it to Mars, so they scrutinize their every move during the all too real simulation, fabricating dilemmas at every turn and watching their reactions and analyzing their emotional states. To prove that they’re perfect for the job, Helen, Yoshi, and Sergei perform the ‘perfect astronaut.’ Veterans at this performance, they know exactly the right reactions to have, how to train their facial expressions, and what to say and when to say it. But as months pass in the simulation and the astronauts live exactly as they would in space, reality begins to break down — both their performed realities and their physical reality. It’s a deeply introspective novel.
“Prime is very deep,” Yoshi says. “I have begun to wonder how deep. Everything seems to have been arranged to work with great precision upon our emotions, to cause us to investigate ourselves and root out that which might obstruct our mission.”
The novel switches perspectives between the three astronauts and their closest family members. Helen, the oldest crew member in her late fifties, lost her husband a few years earlier, and Mireille, her adult actress daughter who can never be her mother, struggles with another parental abandonment as her mother leaves to train for the mission. Yoshi, the youngest member of the crew, must leave his wife Madoka for the mission. While they seemingly have the perfect relationship, Madoka performs the roll of wife and successful business woman without any real sense of living, and Yoshi, ever the romantic, lives in metaphor so much that he fails to understand the physical reality of love. Sergei is undergoing a divorce while his teenaged son Dimitri tries to hide his sexuality, ashamed of being attracted to men and in need of an accepting, present father. While Sergei was my favorite character, there were no characters I didn’t want to read more about.
The Wanderers isn’t a novel about space travel; it’s a novel about the inner workings of the people driven to space, the affects of space travel on their families, and how long space flights can affect perceptions of the past, present, and future. It’s a deeply interior novel, not driven by plot but rather by the subtle opening up of the characters as their many layers to ward off public perception are slowly peeled away to reveal something much more vulnerable and much more human.
I fear the blurb’s analogy to Station Eleven and The Martian is slightly misleading, for it’s only superficially similar to Station Eleven (in that it appeals to all audiences versus only within the SF community), and while I only watched The Martian and didn’t read it, the only relation I see there is that they’re both about space travel. The approach is entirely different.
I highly recommend reading The Wanderers. It’s my first by the author, and I definitely plan to read more by her.